Magic Systems: The Restricted Section

Thinking about world-building and the different components necessary to flesh out a story before the actual drafting process begins brought me to the concept of magic systems. In The Broken Earth, orogenes’ magic system relies on energy within the earth or, as we eventually realize, on the “magic” which exists within all living things. But what makes a magic system successful? Is it the scope? Or is it the rules and limitations which inhibit the system?

Jemisin wrote this blog post all the way back in 2012, before she had written The Fifth Season. In it, she discusses her confusion and frustration with fantasy, magic, and the fact that so many insist it must have rules. “Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system… I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they’re going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction?” At first, I might have agreed with this assessment. Isn’t the reason for fantasy and our idea of magic that it isn’t reality? That we aren’t confined to the limitations and science of our own world. But at the same time, what type of story could be created without rules, limitations, and obstacles? How could J. K. Rowling have written seven Harry Potter books if Harry could have just snapped his fingers and killed Voldemort, and then snapped his fingers again and brought his parents back to life? And how would J. R. R. Tolkien have written The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings volumes if Gandalf could have just destroyed the One Ring himself?

I might argue that any fantasy novel thrives on, or is even all about the limitations of magic. The drive of Harry Potter is that Voldemort was unable to kill the protagonist, and is now trying to fix that mistake. The drive of The Lord of the Rings is that the ring can only be destroyed at Mount Doom. She hasn’t written any blog posts about it since that I can find, but I think Jemisin must have reconsidered her original ideas and changed her mind in between writing the blog post I’ve mentioned above and writing The Broken Earth. There are so many obstacles in the series which are created by the limitations of orogeny and people. What if Essun was able to catch the moon without the Obelisk Gate? What if orogeny didn’t turn her and Alabaster to stone? What if Nassun was able to remove Schaffa’s implant without shortening his life? We’d have a very boring story. That’s what. So yes, magic systems are useful in fantasy to suspend reality, to help us escape like the genre is so prized for doing, but they really can’t be unlimited in their reach. Rules and obstacles are the ways that stories become interesting and I don’t think that we can’t do without them.

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