Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Manifesto for Mysterious Magic, or Why I Will not be the Next Brandon Sanderson

            I think about Brandon Sanderson’s writing a lot, because I listen to Writing Excuses, so  I get the opportunity to hear his thoughts more than the other authors I love.  Brandon Sanderson is a master of fantasy world building, and I enjoy his books a great deal, and hope I can emulate his ability to fully consider the impact of magic on society in my own work, but I’ve come to realize that I am writing about a fundamentally different kind of magic than he does, and I’ve been thinking about why that is and what the things I am doing differently accomplish that Sanderson style magic does not.

            There are two features which I think strongly characterize Sanderson’s magic, throughout his Cosmere novels.  His magic follows laws that are understood or understandable by characters in the world, and which are consistent and predictable in the same manner as other physical laws, and his magic requires costs that are basically economic rather than personal.  The titular stormlight of the Stormlight Archive need only be gathered and then used, Allomancers get their power from metal, which is destroyed in the process.  Feruchemists use their own faculties to power their magic, store now to use later.  The magic of Warbreaker and hemalurgy in the Mistborn series use resources that are a little harsher to acquire, but still treat the energy that powers magic as largely external to the magic user and basically fungible once acquired, and that’s really the important quality of this magic, as far as I’m concerned.

            The combination of those two qualities, fungible power sources and predictable rules, drive Sanderson’s world building in a  magic-as-technology direction.  How many aspects of his societies are driven by magic is a little variable, depending on how common the ability to use the magic is, but they all really occupy that space, and Sanderson is brilliant at it, at creating worlds that are completely alien, and societies that are conditioned by magic and environment into structures that don’t match anything historical, and that’s great.  I love Sanderson’s books, but, here’s the thing: I actually don’t like his magic, and I don’t look for stories that treat magic the same way.

            Here’s why: Sanderson’s stuff is fun, but the magic in particular is popcorn.  There’s a lot to dig in to, but it doesn’t taste of anything.  You can’t feel it in your chest.  It’s too easy for me, like a high without a hangover.  I want magic that hurts, magic that costs, magic that gives you reasons not to use it, not to trust it.  For a while, I thought that the defined nature of Sanderson’s magic worked against that kind of feeling, but I’ve found a counterexample in Max Gladstone’s Craft series, that has rigorous, codifiable magic that still has that visceral sense of cost I’m searching for. 

            I like a magic that hurts, and I also write magic with rules that are more like human laws, or moral laws: complex, ramified, negotiable, too complex for ordinary mortals to encompass completely.  I don’t want an ars arcanum at the back of the book, or a few pithy sentences that lay out the basic principles of magic.  I want the reader and the characters to be feeling their way, judging how the magic works by the hum in their bones and chill down the back of their neck.  I want magic that feels like the moment when the fiddle and the pipes strike up for a live concert; joyful and unearthly and unmistakable.

            Sanderson’s magic is a tool, and a condition. It defines the world his characters act in, and it’s one of their most potent tools for action.  I want magic that’s a character in itself, an ally, not a tool, and sometimes an enemy.  I want magic that doesn’t take a single input and give the same output, magic that has moods and whims and secrets, even from the wisest characters I write.  I don’t want things to be comprehensible, not outside a little circle of firelight in big, dark forest. A large part of this, at least right now, is that my fantasy is almost all set in a secondary world sometime in the middle ages or early Renaissance.  I don’t want to offer magic as a tool for mastering the world; I want it to be one more thing beyond human control.

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