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:
- Magical people
- Magical creatures
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 percolate—it’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!