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 – “Parting The Veil” by Paulette Kennedy

Read if you like: angst, romance, mystery, old mansions, independent American women shaking up 1800s Britain, ghosts, divination, female solidarity, family complications, family secrets, ancestral legacy, betrayals, LGBTQIA historical representation, fickle weather, clever multi-layered plot twists, atmospheric writing, equestrianism (pretty horses, really).

Content warnings: suicidal ideation, self-harm, sexual content, murder, forced captivity, assault/mild violence, drug use/alcoholism, arson, racist and colonial dynamics in historical context, child and pregnancy loss, war, blood, sexism and misogyny, toxic power dynamics, implied incest.

Goodreads summary:

Some houses hold secrets that are meant to be kept forever…

When Eliza Sullivan inherits an estate from a recently deceased aunt, she leaves behind a grievous and guilt-ridden past in New Orleans for rural England and a fresh start. Eliza arrives at her new home and finds herself falling for the mysterious lord of Havenwood, Malcolm Winfield. Despite the sinister rumors that surround him, Eliza is drawn to his melancholy charm and his crumbling, once-beautiful mansion. With enough love, she thinks, both man and manor could be repaired.

Not long into their marriage, Eliza fears that she should have listened to the locals. There’s something terribly wrong at Havenwood Manor: Forbidden rooms. Ghostly whispers in the shadows. Strangely guarded servants. And Malcolm’s threatening moods, as changeable as night and day.

As Eliza delves deeper into Malcolm’s troubling history, the dark secrets she unearths gain a frightening power. Has she married a man or a monster? For Eliza, uncovering the truth will either save her or destroy her.

(Goodreads book profile here)


Review:

I read this book in one sitting – and I was completely enthralled.

Paulette’s grasp on prose, character and atmosphere was what made this book for me, giving me strong Daphne du Maurier vibes. She has a knack for picking verbs that both carries the atmosphere of a scene (“furred with hoarfrost”, “the passageway snarled”, “tucked into her eggs”, “walls crawled around the edges of her eyes”), while also providing you with a subtle understanding of her characters without shoving it in your face. Rather, she demands that you pay attention to the details and wait around for them to be explained. Which you’ll happily do. In fact, the mystery of the book is built up around the characters, as is the custom of the gothic genre, and Paulette has created delightfully intricate characters that reveal themselves to the reader at just the perfect pace to keep you hungry for more, yet satisfied with your current scraps.

To continue with the mystery of the book, I was left with definite clues that kept me guessing throughout the book, yet the plot twists were so well-crafted that I could never quite pinpoint the how and the why – even if I could pinpoint the what. I particularly loved how Paulette used twists as diversion tactics, planting an obvious twist for me to focus on so I’d miss the subtler twist hiding behind it. Layered mysteries; that takes skill. I had complete faith that the many twists would make sense at the end of the book, like a perfect crescendo, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Then there’s the romance. While the romance isn’t always at the center of the plot, it remains the emotional backbone of the story as a whole. Like I mentioned earlier, the mystery of the book is built up around the characters, like all good gothic novels, so it’s no surprise that romantic angst is prominent throughout most of the book while the romance itself takes a backseat at times. More so than many other gothic novels I’ve read, in fact. I was far more interested in seeing the protagonist’s marriage fall apart than I was in seeing it come to life. Romance readers should take note that the sex scenes were fade-to-black (or artfully implied in-scene), so if you’re looking for a (gothic) romance with high heat levels, you might be disappointed.

Lastly, there’s the research. So much research has gone into this book and it absolutely shines, adding enough plausibility to the setting that I felt transported to the world and the time within the first few pages alone. And, yes, I had to look up plenty of objects and fashions, which tells me the research is solid. The same goes for the feminist and LGBTQIA elements, which all felt plausible for the time and place. They ended on happier notes, no less, adding a hopefulness to the book that was a nice breather from the heavier themes of assault, violence, self-harm and suicidal ideation befitting of the genre.

If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Mexican Gothic, and Crimson Peak, then this book is for you.


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