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: “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:

PENGIUN RANDOM HOUSE
AMAZON
B&N
INDIEBOUND
BOOKDEPOSITORY
BOOKS-A-MILLION

My Preorder List of ’22 SFF (and more) Releases

Each December, every year, I make a preorder list of books for the upcoming year. I make sure to include debuts, on principle, and I try to focus on releases within that same year as opposed to books released years ago. My list ranges from MG to Adult, but is primarily focused on SFF since that’s the market I hope to one day be a part of. And, before you ask, the list will no doubt change throughout ’22, but I’ll never delete any books. I’ll only add. There’s that principle again, I guess.

So, without further ado, behold my ‘22 preorder list, complete with blurbs and my reasons for wanting to read these fantastic books.

Settle in, this is gonna be a long one—31 books long, to be precise.


JANUARY

In this Indian-inspired debut fantasy, royal siblings must work together against their will, planning to stab each other in the back during their combined quest for a mysterious object of legend that’ll unlock a new magic in the world in order to prevent an invasion—and I’m sold. That’s it. I need no more.

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Daughter of the Moon Goddess (The Celestial Kingdom Duology, #1)

In this debut adult fantasy, inspired by the legend of Chang’e, the Chinese moon goddess, a young woman grows up on the moon, exiled alongside her mother for stealing an elixir of immortality, after which she must disguise her identity in her quest to free her mother from the most powerful immortal in the realm—yes, please, I’ll take this. No questions asked.

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FEBRUARY

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

It’s a YA fantasy about a girl who sacrifices herself for her brother (and his beloved) by jumping into the watery depths of the Spirit Realm where she must find a way to appease the malevolent Sea God who demands a bride every year—except she discovers him caught in an enchanted sleep, and the longer that she stays in the spirit realm, attempting to wake him and appease him, the closer she herself comes to death.

I mean, what’s not to like here? And the stakes? Someone hold my hand, please.

A River Enchanted (Elements of Cadence, #1)

Not gonna lie, I was sold on this book without even reading the pitch, and purely because one of the comp titles is The Witch’s Heart (2021) by Genevieve Gornichec. A River Enchanted is an adult fantasy about a bard who returns home to assist in finding girls who’ve gone lost, taken by the spirits of his homeland, and he must use his music to do so, with an heiress convincing him to do so, yet the spirits turn more sinister by the day, and there’s just a lot to love here, okay, okay, okay?

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Second Star to the Left

It’s an adult romantic fantasy with a Tinker Bell who’s banished from her homeland for selling the hottest drug in Neverland—pixie dust—after which she wants absolution, which takes the shape of seducing a pirate and stealing precious gems from under his hook—and I’m sold. End of story. Don’t need to know more.

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Rise of the Mages

In this adult fantasy debut, we’ve got a protagonist who wants nothing more than becoming a weapons master—and I’m sold. Come on. Aren’t you sold, too? Maybe it helps if I also mention that the protagonist’s final exam to become a weapons master includes a bloody insurrection, staged by corrupt nobles and priests, that enslaves his brother? And to rescue his brother, the protagonist must embrace not only his abilities as a warrior, but also his place as last of the ancient Mage Kings?

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Fire Becomes Her

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In this YA Jazz Age fantasy where magic buys votes, a politically savvy teen must weigh her desire to climb the social ladder against her heart—do you need to know more? I don’t.

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MARCH

Billede

I’m not gonna say a whole lot here, since I don’t yet know a whole lot, except that this anthology is based off SJ Whitby’s Cute Mutants Series, and if you haven’t read that yet, you’ve failed yourself.

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A Far Wilder Magic

In this YA fantasy, the protagonist is a sharpshooter who needs the help of an alchemist (enter certified soft boi, Wes) in chasing down the last living mythical creature that has spurred the Halfmoon Hunt where the winner will earn fame, riches, and an ancient magical secret. Like, come on? Gimme?

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So This Is Ever After

A subversive, LGBTQ+ YA take on the Arthurian legend where the chosen one wins the kingdom and has to get married to keep it—and to stay alive—after clumsily beheading the evil king with a dull sword and is now at a loss for what to do. I’m sold. I want this down my gullet, right now.

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The Circus Infinite

A LGBTQ+ adult sci-fi in which the protagonist is on the run from people wanting to study his gravity powers, which takes him to a pleasure moon full of mixed-species fugitives, and here he must survive when the crime boss of a resort-casino notices him working a circus job and realizes there’s a bounty on his head, and—good god, do I want to hold this book in my grubby little hands.

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Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter

As one of the reviews for this book so aptly says: “A feminist adventure story set against the backdrop of the dangerous pearl-diving industry in 19th-century Western Australia, about a young English woman who sets off to uncover the truth about the disappearance of her eccentric father.” 


I mean, come on? Who doesn’t need this? Nobody!

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APRIL

Kaikeyi

In this feminist adult fantasy debut, the protagonist is desperate for independence, so she turns to texts she once read with her mother in which she discovers a magic that is hers alone and which transforms her into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored (if also vilified) queen—except there are consequences. There are always consequences, indeed, and I am desperate to know what they are, please?

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Fevered Star (Between Earth and Sky, #2)

This is the sequel to Roanhorse’s Black Sun (2020)—and that’s all I need to know for me to preorder this one. If you haven’t read Black Sun, you’re missing out on one of the more recent masterpieces in adult fantasy. And I genuinely mean that. Sadly, it seems lesser known than some more popular releases, and I’d love to change that.

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MAY

The Stardust Thief

In this adult fantasy debut…

A merchant, a jinn, a prince, and a thief walk into the desert.
“For treasure,” says the merchant.
“For redemption,” says the jinn
“For adventure!” says the prince.
“For revenge,” says the thief.
For better or worse, they get exactly what they wish for.

That’s it. That’s the pitch, courtesy of the author itself, and what more can I say?

Under Fortunate Stars

In this adult sci-fi, we follow a smuggler whose freighter breaks down in a strange rift in deep space where it encounters a supposed research vessel from the future. I don’t need to know more than that mystery and setting alone; do you?

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Book of Night

Holly Black’s first venture into adult fantasy? Yes, please. I don’t even care what this book is about. I just want it. That said, if you like con artists, shadow magic with lethal consequences, and sharp prose, then this book is for you.

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Wind Daughter (Echo North, #2)

This YA fantasy novel (companion to Echo North, 2019) is about a storyteller and his daughter. The twist? The storyteller was once the formidable North Wind, but he lost his power by trading it away in exchange for mortality because he loved his daughter’s mother too much to live without her. This book is the story of the daughter, Satu, as she embarks on a perilous journey to reclaim her father’s magic—but she isn’t the only one searching for it.  

Can you scream stakes and worldbuilding? If not, then I can scream it for you.

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JUNE

A Mirror Mended (Fractured Fables, #2)

In this sequel to the YA fantasy novella A Spindle Splintered (2020), the protagonist is a professional fairytale fixer who’s done fixing damsels in distress. Until, of course, the last person shows up who simply must be fixed, and it turns out the person isn’t a princess, but an evil queen—and I won’t go quietly into the night waiting for this book, I’m telling you…

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The Final Strife

In this African and Arabian-inspired adult fantasy, three women band together against a cruel Empire that divides people by blood—red, blue, and clear—and as the Empire begins a set of trials of combat and skill designed to find its new leaders, the stage is set for blood to flow, power to shift, cities to burn, and for me to scream bloody murder until I get to hold this book in my hands.

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The Sleepless

In this adult contemporary sci-fi, the setting is a New York City where a minority of the population has lost the need for sleep, and a journalist fights to uncover the truth behind his boss’s murder while his own Sleeplessness spirals out of control.

I mean, the setting and the stakes alone had me gasping for this book immediately; what about you?

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JULY

  1. THE BOOK OF GOTHEL by Mary McMyne
The Book of Gothel

In this debut adult fantasy, we get the story of the witch who put Rapunzel in the tower, Haelewise, starting from when she was the strange, shunned child of an overprotective mother who dies and leaves her unmoored—until she finds the tower of Gothel and those who live there.

I mean, if you don’t wanna hear more about this story, I’m not sure what you wanna hear more about, you know?

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Silk Fire

As taken directly from the source, because wow, did this pitch have me hooked immediately: “Set in a planet-sized matriarchal city where magic and technology freely bleed together, a male courtesan’s quest for vengeance against his aristocrat father draws him into an ancient struggle between dragons, necromancers, and his home district’s violent history.”

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Flames Of Mira (The Rift Walker, #1)

This epic adult fantasy has everything you could want, basically: elementals forged in boiling volcanoes and subterranean passages, a protagonist forced to work in secret as an enforcer for a corrupt magnate when he’s cursed with a flesh binding that’ll have magic killing him at the first sign of disobedience—and do you need to know more? Maybe you want to know that the magnate dies, leaving the protagonist to rediscover the person he once was and escape his flesh binding before the land falls apart around him?

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AUGUST

The Book Eaters

Things you can find in this contemporary fantasy debut, as best said by the author herself:

“Literal book eating; violent road trip thru Northern Britain; a kickass mother-son duo; cults, conspiracies, & hidden societies; bone-deep platonic friendships (and ace rep); modern gothic vibes; 90s video game nostalgia”

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The Bruising of Qilwa

This adult fantasy novella has a refugee practitioner of blood magic discovering a strange disease that causes political rifts in their new homeland, leading to lethal accusations of ineptly-performed blood magic —and I’m done, that’s it, I want to inhale this book right now.

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SEPTEMBER

The Witch and the Tsar

This debut adult fantasy deals with the maligned and immortal witch of legend known as Baba Yaga as she risks all to save Russia and her people from Tsar Ivan the Terrible. When her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the Tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s, and so Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves. But what Yaga can’t know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.

I mean, the sheer stakes in this, both small-scale and large-scale, and the deep-seeded motivation of friendship against the backdrop of 16th century Russia; what more can you ask for?

Nona the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #3)

I don’t need to say much here, do I? Except that I am overjoyed we’ll be getting four books, rather than three, and who’s with me?

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OCTOBER

N/A


NOVEMBER

In this xianxia-inspired contemporary debut fantasy, we meet a magical temporary agency calligrapher who becomes involved with a client and must embrace her powers in order to battle a deadly feud. Check, please? I’m ready to buy, right now?

This fantasy duology is pitched as King Arthur meets Peaky Blinders with vampires—and let’s just stop there, because that’s enough for me to buy it. What about you?

Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston (Sir Callie #1)

In this LGBTQ+ MG debut, 12-year-old nonbinary Callie’s ex-hero dad is summoned to the royal capitol of Helston to train a hopeless prince as an epic war looms, while Callie lunges for the opportunity to become an official knight in training. Helston is full of powerful people who believe knighthood is for boys and magic is for girls, and Callie and Co. will have to fight both the dangers beyond the kingdom and the bigotry from within. 

Like come on? If this doesn’t scream MG Tamora Pierce, then what does? I’m in!

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And that’s it. That’s my preorder list for 2022 as of today’s date. Liable to change, of course, as we actually enter 2022, but so far this is it. 31 books. Since I managed to read 50 books during 2021, I imagine this is doable. With the caveat that I’ll no doubt add more. Speaking of…

Did I miss any books?

Then do tell me in the comments below!