"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The "Rules" of Magic

The big news this week:  Kim Vandervort's THE NORTHERN QUEEN is being launched this weekend.  Hooray!  I can't wait to read it. This is the sequel to the wonderful novel THE SONG AND THE SORCERESS, released by Hadley Rille Books in 2009.  I'm a big fan of Vandervort, and if you haven't had a chance to read her work yet, now is the time to put her on your holiday reading list.  Congratulations, Kim!

Both of the links I put for Vandervort's novels go to the Hadley Rille website, but you can also order these books through Amazon, or ask for them at your local bookstore.  Just as a reminder, though -- Hadley Rille is still celebrating its fifth birthday with the giveaway of a free Kindle 3G. In addition to being able to register for the drawing for free when you visit Hadley Rille's website, every time you order a book from the site you get another entry in the drawing.  For more information, click HERE

Okay, on to today's topic:  The 'Rules' of Magic

I'm not sure who first coined the term 'the rules of magic'.  I'd like to credit Orson Scott Card with having used the phrase in his brief but very helpful book "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy", but in truth I'm not sure he did.  The first time I heard "magic" and "rules" used in the same breath was at a meeting with my local writers group, the Dead Horse Society.  The heart of the idea did not really become clear to me, though, until many months later when a member of DHS, having read an early draft of EOLYN, came back to me with several questions about magic in Moisehen.  The one that has stuck with me to this day is this:

"If magas draw their power from the earth, how is it that they can shapeshift into owls?"

In the moment, I thought this  a ridiculous question.  Why would drawing power from the earth negate the ability to shapeshift into an owl?   As it turned out, this person's confusion arose from a preconceived notion that flying creatures are associated with the power of air.  Yet in the world of Moisehen, that's not how things work.  All living creatures are associated intimately with the power of the earth, and practitioners connected to the earth can, therefore, shapeshift.  Practitioners who draw their power from the air, on the other hand, cannot shapeshift  -- even into flying creatures -- although they do have access to other distinctive gifts.

In any case, this question was a turning point in my journey as a fantasy writer.  For the first time, I realized there would be readers out there with preconceived notions of how magic is supposed to work, and that if I wanted to avoid upsetting them with 'magic that made no sense', I needed to be more explicit throughout the novel about the underlying logic of magic in Eolyn's world. That day I went home and told my husband I needed to outline the "rules of magic" for Moisehen.  To which he laughed and said, "I thought the whole point of magic is that it breaks the rules." 

At the 2010 World Fantasy Convention, I attended a panel discussion entitled "The Fairy Tale as a Specific Form".  There were five members of the panel, Leah Bobet, Terri-Lynne DeFino, James Dorr, Gabe Dybing, and Delia Sherman.  Early in the discussion, the topic of magic came up, and one of the panelists mentioned that for JRR Tolkien, magic by its very nature could not be explained -- as so many readers expect it to be now -- it simply 'felt' right, though its inner workings would always be a mystery. 

Now, I am no scholar of Tolkien, and all I have from this panel is that one brief note, but I do think it's interesting -- assuming the panelist's assesment is accurate -- the implication that we have moved from a period in which magic was accepted as an intuitive, essentially inexplicable endeavor, to a time when it's a fundamental task of every fantasy writer to elaborate, in an almost scientific fashion, on the 'rules of magic' for his or her world. 

Does that mean the genre has advanced somehow, become better, more thorough in its approach to world building? 

I'm not so sure. I have heard, for example, colleagues ruminating about the problem of 'conservation of mass' during shapeshifting.  Yet as I see things, if you can turn a duck into a goose with a wave of a wand, the laws of physics are already irrelevant.  What, exactly, do we gain by mixing science with magic?  By distilling the infinite universe of imagination into testable hypotheses? By trying to fit square pegs into round holes? 

Just one year ago, I was comfortable with this idea of 'rules' in magic, but -- as is probably clear from this post -- I'm starting to drift away from that.  I no longer believe 'rules' is the correct word to use in association with magic. I do believe magic (like, say, religion or art or even literature) must have an underlying logic, a way of working that is tied intimately to the culture, history and worldview of the people who practice it. (Another way of saying, I suppose, that it has to 'feel' right.) In that sense, magic will always have limitations -- but limitations defined, I think, more by the vision of its practitioners than by any inherent 'rules' that govern what magic can and cannot do. 

What do you think?  Does magic need rules?  Or is magic meant to break them?