When I was a kid, my Daddy taught my brothers and me how to play chess. Only one brother excelled after the first lessons, but the introduction to the game was exhilarating, like the opportunity to make fancy moves (oh, that space is open, so I can move my knight!) and to take the opponent’s queen. What fun!
Later we learned that chess is a game of strategy and the player doesn’t move pieces without a plan. Some strategies are used many times and have names such as a fianchetto bishop or back rank checkmate. To maneuver into these board structures takes several accepted moves that your opponent will recognize with the very first move.
Magic drives the story:
Some writers are still in the learning stage (from which I never emerged as a chess player) where the intrigue rests with executing exotic moves. The purpose of writing is to explore the uses of magic.
The (often charming) development of magic systems in these stories overwhelms the plot and serves to engage the reader on its own level – sometimes a cloying banquet of magic where the love story or the need for a final battlefield are tertiary.
I place The Last Airbender and Percy Jackson in this category.
Magic enlivens the story:
Some writers have stepped past the stage of fun with magic and use the presence of characters with magic to drive the plot. These writers are similar to chess players who have studied some famous chess strategies and want to employ them in a match. One rule of thumb to recognize this type of writer is that the magic is similar from one series to the next – because the strategies are similar.
I place Eragon and How to Train Your Dragon in this category; formula writing using well-established plot points that delight audience expectation. But we know the outcome by page 60 because we know the strategy with the opening move.
Magic inserted just because we can:
In Theft of Swords by Sullivan, an entire early sequence was about rescuing a wizard from a prison that nobody had succeeded at opening for two centuries. The descriptions were fun and the logical problems intriguing. But when the wizard is free, he says thanks and leaves. I suppose he returns later to return the favor, but I didn’t get that far.
I read (part of) Throne of the Crescent Moon due to a recommendation from Kirkus Reviews. I suppose the readers at Kirkus are jaded and liked the story because the setting, and therefore the magic, was oriental. But the magic was everywhere, in every scene used by every character. I couldn’t follow the story – but I also couldn’t follow Battlestar Gallactica, so go figure.
Magic provides a strong ending:
The duel with the basilisk in one of the Harry Potter books is an example of overcoming the raging opponent, after which all questions are settled and Harry can return to Hogwarts for the next term with a fresh slate. And the final duel with Lord Voldemort that winds up the series is a great example of using magic to bring all influences to a conclusion.
Magic is often tamped down in this type of story by the limitations of the user, but serves as deus ex machina in the story climax or end of a trilogy. I enjoyed The Daughter of the Forest trilogy by Juliet Marillier and cried for the last 60 pages of the first story – something about swans and sacrifice to end a curse.
Marillier’s novels included elements of formula, though, just like with chess moves. A ingénue who is touch by magic but ignorant of its uses, guided by a would-be lover with unwavering devotion, an unrelenting female opponent, along with benign spirits and druids with little to do. Sound familiar?
The third story titled Child of Prophecy repeats these elements for a third generation while the milieu remains static. The climax is a battlefield, of course, where our ingénue enters without a plan, without her magic, and without a weapon, encouraged by spirits to “fake it”. Of course, the gods have a place for her that is not hinted at earlier in the trilogy (that I won’t reveal here), and the gods make all the combatants awestruck while our heroine performs her final farewells to family.
Magic is used sparingly or when necessary:
Some writers use magic to change the story rather than to bolster the story, a subtle difference. I enjoyed reading The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling, especially the first story that sets up the curse – much like Snow White except the agent of the curse is helpful rather than mean. The reversal of the curse came (close to) the middle of the trilogy and included gender questions for girls-with-swords, so I was intrigued.
The final story Hidden Warrior has an inserted holy man from a different culture who happens along the road at an opportune moment to serve the hero, but he wanders off before the final battle. Once the initial curse was alleviated, the presence of magic was not essential, so the inserted holy man was a maneuver (like in chess) where the reader can see the rationale.
Magic as a developed system:
Brandon Sanderson: ‘nuff said.
The only issue I have with the entire story depending on uses of magic by good guys and bad guys, that Sanderson calls “hard magic”, is that the story becomes predictable, even repetitive. The characters are dependent on skills or discipline to save them and have few other interests.
The Fantastic Four fits this category. Even the bad guy has a power, but must use it in certain ways with specific limitations. The plot revolves around how to trip him up on his own special power.
Magic from a master:
I’m currently reading The Blade Itself (Book I of a trilogy), which is long. Joe Abercrombie uses magic to build the plot and keep the reader engaged. His scenes are episodic (irritating), and too involved with the details of torture (revolting), but the reader feels the cold rain and sword cuts (shows good choices).
Magic is used at surprising moments and differently than a rehash for training dragons. A campfire has a spirit that our hero can tamp under his tongue to light the next campfire: he, he, he. I’m not but 48% through the book (did I mention that it’s long?), but I have hope that this chess match begins a new strategy that has yet to be named.