To start off this post with a picture, here is the new cover for Cloak of the Two Winds, Book 1 of the Glimnodd Cycle.
I’m excited to announce I will be re-releasing this series over the next couple of months AND publishing Book 3, Tournament of Witches.
To mark the occasion, let’s talk about magic systems in fantasy and in the Glimnodd books in particular.
I think a lot about magic in fiction (and also in real life for that matter). For fantasy, I find constructing magic systems to be one of the most interesting points of world-building.
But how do you build a fictional magic system that readers will understand and love?
Brandon Sanderson’s First Law of Magic
For many, a cogent answer to this question begins with author Brandon Sanderson’s famous Three Laws of Magic. As presented by the author in a series of blog posts beginning here, these laws are:
- First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
- Second Law : Limitations > Power (For story purposes, limitations on the magic are more important than the magic powers.)
- Third Law: Expand what you already have before you add something new.
Now, as author Max Florschutz points out in a blog post here , these laws are not so much about creating magic systems as rules for how best to use magic in a story.
Nevertheless, when you invent a magic system as an author, you need to be aware of the First Law in particular. In other words, you have to figure out how to make the magic comprehensible to the reader.
Hard, Soft, and In Between
In his essay on the first law, Sanderson elucidates with examples of different magic systems on a continuum from “soft” to “hard”:
On one side of the continuum, we have books where the magic is included in order to establish a sense of wonder and give the setting a fantastical feel. Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t. … I call this a “Soft Magic” system…
Sanderson cites Tolkien as a prime example. In The Lord of the Rings, the rules of the magic are never much explained. By the same token, while magic creates the dangerous situation (the Lord of Mordor and his rings), magic is seldom if ever used to solve the characters’ problems. Frodo and Sam don’t magically teleport to Mordor to drop off the One Ring.
On the other end of the continuum is “hard magic,” where the working rules are explicitly explained:
The magic itself is a character, and by showing off its laws and rules, the author is able to provide twists, worldbuilding, and characterization.
If the reader understands how the magic works, then you can use the magic (or, rather, the characters using the magic) to solve problems. In this case, it’s not the magic mystically making everything better. Instead, it’s the characters’ wit and experience that solves the problems. Magic becomes another tool—and, like any other tool, its careful application can enhance the character and the plot.
Taken to its extreme, hard magic systems can be like table-top gaming, where specific powers are based on point-systems. Many readers want this kind of hard-and-fast rules-based world, but I personally find hard systems less than appealing. If everything is known, where is the sense of wonder?
Fortunately, as Sanderson points out, most writers choose a middle ground between the hard and soft extremes. He cites the Harry Potter novels as a prime example.
Each of these books outlines various rules, laws, and ideas for the magic of the world. And, in that given book, those laws are rarely violated, and often they are important to the workings of the book’s climax. However, if you look at the setting as a whole, you don’t really ever understand the capabilities of magic.
This strategy allows characters to solve problems with magic while avoiding the trap of the magic becoming a predictable, rote system and thereby losing all the mystery and wonder.
Magic in the World of Glimnodd
I am big on mystery and the mystical sense of wonder. Nevertheless, magic is integral to the plot of my fantasy stories. Which means my characters often solve problems with magic. Which means the reader has to have a sense of the limits and the rules. So my stories fall somewhere in the middle of the hard-soft spectrum.
In the Glimnodd Cycle, magic is definitely and consistently a deep aspect of the story lines. On Glimnodd, magic has been around for a long, long time. So much so, that the unrestrained use of magic caused the fabric of reality to fray and the world to change. This brought about a time known as The Age of the World’s Madness, where chaos reigned, new sentient species arose, and one of the three moons flew off into space.
Later, balance was restored. To preserve the balance and vent off excess magical energies, great spells were woven. One causes the seas of Glimnodd to shine with a perpetual light. The second causes magic winds to blow which change the seas to ice or the ice back to soft water.
There are multiple magical systems mentioned in the stories. In terms of magic used to solve plot problems, there are touches of shamanic magic, alchemy, and ancient evil sorcery (with clearly defined rules in A Mirror Against All Mishap).
But the most detailed magical system is that codified and used by the Witches of Larthang. This is based on five arts.
The Five Revered Arts
The Five Revered Arts of Larthangan Witchery are:
- Deep Seeing (wei shen) – The art of perceiving thoughts, images, and events through no physical sense but through the mind alone.
- Formulation (jai-dah or “weaving”). The creation of mental constructs that are stored and then released at a chosen moment, through incantation and mental casting.
- Trinketing (barang-xing). The fabrication of magical objects. In this art, the witch generates a magical design and binds it to a material object, allowing the power to be unleashed at a later time by herself or another person.
- Magical combat (weng lei). In this art, a witch trains with dagger, sword, ritual stances, and fighting techniques. With the force of her mind she can send blades through the air or cast weakness into an opponent’s body.
- Pure-shaping (quon-xing). The spontaneous use of mental power to create effects in the world.
In terms of their limitations, all five arts depend on the practiced skill and mental strength of the practitioner (the witch or ‘deepshaper’). In scenes where magic is used to solve problems, there is always a sense of struggle, tension, and doubt.
For further reading …
To learn more about Brandon Sanderson’s work, check out brandonsanderson.com.
You can read his posts on the Three Laws of Magic here:
To learn more about the magic of Glimnodd, check out these pages:
Or you can pick up Book 1, Cloak of the Two Winds on Amazon.
Or… Sign up here for our Triskelist Newsletter and receive “Street Sorceress,” a short story that takes place prior to the events of Cloak.