Can you have fantasy without magic?

In my 20 years of reading and writing fantasy, I’ve never thought much about the part that magic plays in fantasy—until recent years. It started with one book for me. A book that, paradoxically, isn’t new in the slightest, but was written in 1926.

That book is LUD-IN-THE-MIST, by Hope Mirrlees.

I picked it up in a bookstore at random. Or, I say at random, but I really picked it up because the cover was pretty and it had a Neil Gaiman blurb calling it “the single most beautiful and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century.”

Like, how do you resist that?

Anyway, I read the book, loved it—and somehow, for some reason, realized that the magic within the book is solely contained to the land. The dirt. The soil. Meanwhile, the characters are all regular people, affected by this magical land, but they never contain any magic themselves. Neither are there any magical creatures (that are shown, not purely told).

Reading that book had a monumental impact on my own worldbuilding.

It affected every book that I wrote after it, honestly, with me moving all magic from my characters into the soil upon which they walk. Before this, worldbuilding was my weakness. But now? Once I realized I didn’t have to make magical people, but I could have magical soil instead? It changed everything for me. Magical people had always felt overdone to me, meaning I struggled finding a fresh spin on it that could keep me invested enough to write a whole book. But a magical land? Now, that was something different. For me, obviously. I can only speak for me.

This, in turn, made me think about the “classifications” or “locales” of magic in the fantasy genre.

As I see it, we can roughly bulk the magical presence into three categories:

  1. Magical people
  2. Magical creatures
  3. Magical land

I view these categories as a powerplay between outlets of magic (not to be confused with the fantastical/otherworldly, which can also exist in sci-fi etc.), and I’ll try to explain it below.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

To give examples, recent fantasies that includes magical people as its primary outlet (aka, people controlling magic that is either their own or magic that is the land) could be DOWN COMES THE NIGHT by Saft, LAKESEDGE by Clipstone, JASMINE THRONE by Suri, WITHIN THESE WICKED WALLS by Blackwood, the ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES by Harrow, WITCHMARK by C.L. Polk, THE UNBROKEN by Clark, and THE BONE-SHARD DAUGHTER by Stewart.

This seemingly remains the most popular way of including magic. The important point here is that while the land and the creatures might also be magical in this narrative, they are often somehow controlled by the magical people around them. Tamed, you might say. And that’s different from my other two categories of magic that lists creatures and land as having independent magic that people cannot contain and control.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

Then there’s the magical creatures. Sentient, independent magical beings. Recent fantasies that feature magical creatures as a primary outlet could be BLACK SUN by Roanhorse and WOLF OF OREN-YARO/THE IKESSAR FALCON/DRAGON OF JIN-SAYENG by Villoso. I’d also include Chakraborty’s DAEVABAD trilogy here as well, and maybe even Moreno-Garcia’s GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW. And Stiefwater’s THE SCORPIO RACES, of course.

You could also bring in Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE here, although that’s not a recent release. Likewise, you could bring in Novik’s TEMERAIRE series, but it’s also not recent. It does seem to me that magical creatures aren’t as favored in traditional publishing as they used to be.

Drowned Country (The Greenhollow Duology, #2) by Emily Tesh

Then there’s the magical land. As with LUD-IN-THE MIST, the book that founded the entire basis for this article and my general view on magic in fantasy. Now, when there’s a magical land, there’s also often magical people. Novik’s UPROOTED comes to mind. And Solomon’s SORROWLAND. And Meyer’s INTO THE HEARTLESS WOOD. But there are also books where the magical land is the primary outlet. Tesh’s SILVER IN THE WOOD/DROWNED COUNTRY both fit that mark. As does THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING by Henderson, Sutherland’s HOUSE OF HOLLOW, Huang’s BURNING ROSES, and Ernshaw’s WINTERWOOD. You might say that in these books the magic of the land controls the magic of the people. And the land is often somehow hostile (in recent times). The antagonist to the protagonist. The reverse of the first category were the people controlled the magic of the land.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Then there are fantasies with very little magic in them, whether it be people or creatures or land.  SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Chan fits that mark for me. For books like SWBTS, it’s the secondary world that makes it fantasy while the magic is mostly absent. For other books, where magic is entirely absent, we’re talking non-magical fantasy which is a subgenre of its own.

A lot of this also depends on the POV of a book. 1st person POV lends itself well to (the inner struggles/goals of) magical people, I daresay, whereas 3rd person POV might lend itself better to magical creatures or magical land.

And then there’s also the age categories to keep in mind. Perhaps MG lends itself better to magical people because that’s what a younger audience needs most? A smaller-scale focus on family, friendship, etc.? And perhaps Adult fits magical land better because politics and military can play a bigger part (as in the case of SWBTS)?

And this is what I want to end with, I think.

The fact that, yes, we absolutely can have fantasy without magic, and these books often take the shape in secondary worlds that are fantastical rather than magical—but it’s perhaps more pertinent to look at the shape of the magic presented rather than the absence/presence of it.

Because, really, isn’t that what fantasy is about? Our attempt to define what magic can/can’t be? Our attempt to define the fantastical? With the caveat that the fantastical doesn’t have to be magical, but then this bodes the question, when is something fantasy (as a genre) and when is it science-fiction, for example? And when is it science fantasy? Or simply speculative?

Again, in my view, it’s all about the powerplay of the magical/fantastical.

And, more importantly, it’s also a matter of individual versus collective definitions of “magic” as a concept, which also necessitates that we consider reader expectation on top of that, meaning we’ll have to look into majority versus minority definitions of “magic” as a concept, and then also see where those definitions percolateit’s a lot, amirite?

I asked if you can have fantasy without magic, and yes, you absolutely can, but I also think it hinges a lot on personal/reader/industry definition and expectation of “magic” as a concept.

And that, folks, will be my ending note.

Thanks for listening!

ARC Review: “Under Fortunate Stars” by Ren Hutchings

(thanks to Rebellion Publishing for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: space, ticking clocks, STEM, multiple POV, time travel, tension, survival, overcoming/learning to live with trauma, interplaying timelines, boss bitches, grumpy heroes, locked-room mysteries, Harrow the Ninth, Star Trek character dynamics, pseudo-unreliable narrators, flawed characters, moral grayness, existentialism

Triggers: death, mild sexual content, assault, murder, profanity, anxiety, blood, war, emotional trauma

Under Fortunate Stars

Goodreads Summary:

Fleeing the final days of the generations-long war with the alien Felen, smuggler Jereth Keeven’s freighter the Jonah breaks down in a strange rift in deep space, with little chance of rescue—until they encounter the research vessel Gallion, which claims to be from 152 years in the future.

The Gallion’s chief engineer Uma Ozakka has always been fascinated with the past, especially the tale of the Fortunate Five, who ended the war with the Felen. When the Gallion rescues a run-down junk freighter, Ozakka is shocked to recognize the Five’s legendary ship—and the Five’s famed leader, Eldric Leesongronski, among the crew.

But nothing else about Leesongronski and his crewmates seems to match up with the historical record. With their ships running out of power in the rift, more than the lives of both crews may be at stake.

(Goodreads book profile here)


I read this book in one sitting—and I knew this was gonna be the case after reading the first couple of chapters. Why? Because the tension in this book is off the charts. It’s in every single chapter, on every single page, even across several POVs. Hutchings is a master of microtension as well as macrotension, and you feel it from the second you lay eyes on their words. The stakes are palpable and high as all hell, but presented to you through a narrow, character-oriented scope. Add in that Hutchings is a master of subtext and narrative omission, and you have the perfect locked-room mystery on hand.

But it’s not a locked-room mystery in the traditional sense. A lot of the elements are there, however, to give the illusion of it. It reminds me a lot of Harrow the Ninth in that there’s that same feeling of being trapped in a place with the risk of death imminent until a mystery is figured out. In this case, the mystery isn’t a traditional mystery. It’s more a matter of figuring out how to survive, but the characters are shrouded in so much in mystery themselves that it feels less like they’re trying to survive, and more like they’re trying to hide from each other and themselves. Hutchings unveils the flawed and complicated history of the characters throughout the entire book, adding a locked-room feeling not just to the external plot, but also to the internal character arcs. It feels a little like a puzzle being pieced together backwards, if such a thing was physically possible.

At this point, I should probably include that a lot of this mystery (both external and internal) is derived from Hutchings’s expert play with time as a concept. The motley cast of the book is on a mission to restore the past in order to secure the future—but not in the traditional sense here, either. Hutchings plays with the time travel trope that “altering history will alter the future”, but they put a spin on it. The spin is that no one travels back in time. Rather, people from different timelines end up accidentally in a timeless existence relative to each other. In a sort of limbo-space (spoiler: an anomalous energy field) that’s neither the present, the past, nor the future—but timeless. Like connective tissue between all times, at once. And here people from different timelines in the same universe collide. The people from the future want to mold the people from the past into fitting history as they know it, whereas the people from the past reject the history that the people from the future present to them. It’s a truly fascinating play of character motivations and stakes—especially once you realize that righting the timelines to their natural states is necessary to prevent annihilation of humanity and put an end to a past/present/future war between humanity and an alien species.  

Loyalty, loss, and legend make up the thematic core of this book. It’s about the choices you didn’t make, those you did, and those you yet have to make. It’s about living up to being a legend, learning to live with loss, and understanding the sacrifices that loyalty demands. It also raises questions about chance, luck, and destiny. Perhaps most interestingly, the book highlights the power of communication as a theme, slotting the alien species into the position of sympathizer rather than the humans by making the alien species regretful over the lives lost once they realize humans are sentient via—you guessed it—communication. In this sense, the book also reminds me a lot of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life (and Arrival, the film version). Especially when you add the concept of non-linear time and mixes it with this focus on communication.

Then there’s the twist at the end of the book. It blew my mind. While Hutchings doesn’t use a 100% unreliable narrator (like, we’re not talking Gatsby and Shutter Island level), the feeling is there towards the end. This is mostly because pivotal information is omitted from the reader until the very end where it serves as a wild twist of a perfect answer to everything. And because the omission is driven by a character’s denial and repressed trauma, it feels less like an unreliable narrator than if the character had deliberately lied to the reader.

Last, but not least, we have realistic LGBTQ+ and diversity rep, running as a solid undercurrent that’s thankfully never presented as something spectacular or sensational, but rather something entirely inherent to human nature.

If you like mysteries in space and time, with a heavy dose of existentialist dread and deeply flawed, but admirable characters, then this book is for you.


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ARC Review: “The Circus Infinite” by Khan Wong

(thanks to NetGalley and Angry Robot for providing me with this arc)

Read if you like: space opera, found family, an appreciation of culture, ace rep, circus tricks, gravity tricks, the reluctant chosen one, easily readable prose with grand thematic depth, worldbuilding that slap you across the face and then gently lays you down on a bed, moral grayness, thieving, espionage, betrayal, split loyalties, inclusivity across sexual orientation/gender/race, snark, hurt/comfort

Content warnings: bodily harm, governmental abuse, racial discrimination/speciesism, unethical scientific experiments on unwilling subjects, mild torture, parental neglect

The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong

Goodreads Summary:

Hunted by those who want to study his gravity powers, Jes makes his way to the best place for a mixed-species fugitive to blend in: the pleasure moon. Here, everyone just wants to be lost in the party. It doesn’t take long for him to catch the attention of the crime boss who owns the resort-casino where he lands a circus job. When the boss gets wind of the bounty on Jes’ head, he makes an offer: do anything and everything asked of him, or face vivisection.

With no other options, Jes fulfills the requests: espionage, torture, demolition. But when the boss sets the circus up to take the fall for his about-to-get-busted narcotics operation, Jes and his friends decide to bring the mobster down together. And if Jes can also avoid going back to being the prize subject of a scientist who can’t wait to dissect him? Even better.

(Goodreads book profile here)


Review:

This character-driven, space-fest of a book feels deceptively light upon first glance, but has a thematic potency that lingers long after you’ve closed the last page. Like space itself, almost. If you feel hesitant for the first 10-20% of the story, I promise you that the payoff is worth it. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that the story runs on two timelines: past and present. The present takes up roughly 80% of the book, while the past offers intermittent context for the present plot and character development in a continual feedback loop that keeps you hooked until the end where the past catches up to the present with a (literal) BOOM.

That’s the pay-off. 

And it’s a fantastic one.

The book is ripe with themes that cut so close to the heart it leaves you shocked in the aftermath. Existentialism is all over this book, but it’s never so overt that you notice it in the moment. It’s a very genuine story that comes from a vulnerable place, wrapped up in a multi-faceted space setting with found family, empathy, independence, prejudice, and human nature as central themes. It’s a story about power. About coming into your own and not running from it—not hiding behind circus tricks, as it were. Even more so, it’s a beautifully wrought exploration of how your choices define you, not your roots, and how important it is for every sentient being to belong somewhere. If we don’t, we flounder. We hurt. And this book depicts this beautifully.

If we take a step back from the thematic potency (read: if I can stop raving about it), Wong is a master of worldbuilding and character dynamics. The characters grab you by the throat and don’t let go, with every single one of them feeling so very relatable despite their alien appearance—but I promised no more raving about themes, so let’s move on to worldbuilding. Here, Wong takes a smorgasbord and delivers it bite for bite, making it accessible, letting me savor it, playing ping-ping with the two timelines as a context-building narrative tool. You can’t taste everything at once, no matter how much you want to, and Wong knows this. In that sense, the worldbuilding reminds me of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, where she uses this same smorgasbord approach to worldbuilding.

As for the specific story elements that I thoroughly enjoyed, I was so intrigued by the concept of supernatural talents being born within a species from connecting with a planetary consciousness. And don’t get me started on the addition of secondary supernatural talents more unique to each person (so-called “paratalents”). Overall, the whole concept of “the chosen one” feels incredibly fresh here, to the point that I even hesitate calling it “the chosen one”, although I won’t refrain from saying it entirely, because by the end of the book, the vibes did come through strongly for me. Although, perhaps it’s more of a “reluctant chosen one” than an outright “chosen one”.

I also absolutely adored the clever use of cultural terms, and how culture was highlighted as building bridges between species. Especially through the performing arts (music and circus), but also through the more shadowy arts that require nobody to be on stage and where the artist isn’t the product to be sold (art exhibits).

Last, but never least, I loved the ace rep. It was such a delight to read a sci-fi/space opera book that highlights the asexual experience. And the way that Wong mixes this representation with the protagonist being an empath made for a particularly eye-opening and riveting read in that the protagonist realizes his asexuality by recognizing that lust is an emotion he’s only every felt from others, not himself. It adds a fascinating layer of depth to the experience that makes it very approachable to someone who might not share that same inclination. I also want to mention the overall inclusivity of the book that includes trans rep, bi rep, and every sort of rep you could ever wish for.

If you’re in want of an enlightened book that reads easily, but has a heavy thematic core mixed with character dynamics that wrap you up tight as a buffer against these darker themes, then this book is for you.


PREORDER LINKS:

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