Let’s put aside literary integrity, writing quality, and originality for a moment and just focus on the superficial. When it comes to reading fantasy, a cool magic system is often enough to hook a reader despite a cliched story, or save a book filled with one-dimensional characters. Magic is just cool, and sometimes you’ve got to give credit where credit is due, even when a magic system is more creative than the story in which you discover it. With that in mind, here are the top ten coolest magic systems in fantasy, by series title.
10. The Dying Earth Series by Jack Vance
Vance created the Dying Earth subgenre with his eponymous 1950 short story collection. In so doing, he also introduced a memorable (pun intended) system of magic. In the far future world of the Dying Earth, magicians use spells, but only 100 spells remain to human knowledge. These spells are complex and very difficult to commit to memory, so a magic user can only carry so many around in his memory at one time, and they are immediately forgotten upon use. Wizards like Turjan of Miir and Mazirian the Magician, therefore, face the interesting challenge of having to predict what obstacles they might face on any given adventure and memorize the appropriate spells accordingly — and when they use up the ones they’ve remembered for each trip out into the wilderness of the dying earth, they’re out of luck, which makes for entertaining dilemmas.
9. The Shannara Series by Terry Brooks
There’s nothing terribly original about the magic system Brooks uses in his Shannara novels: it’s elemental, a natural feature of the world that is workable primarily by those with some Elven blood in them. I include it mostly because the Shannara series is one of the classic epic fantasies that features magical items. Unlike some other series which treat magic as an entirely organic energy, something that inhabits only living things, in Brooks’s series the characters often seek out artifacts that are magical in and of themselves. This is hardly unique to Shannara, but magical artifacts in this series are particularly memorable: the Sword of Shannara, the blue “seeker” elfstones, the black elfstone, the Loden, the Stiehl, and more. Brooks also gets points for sheer showmanship: there’s something satisfying about black-cloaked druids launching streams of blue fire from their fingertips. It’s like watching a summer blockbuster: it may not be high art, but it’s entertaining. This series also has a measure of sentimental value for me personally, as it was the first epic fantasy I read following my discovery of Tolkien, and I whiled away not a few sunny afternoons running around my backyard in a homemade cloak, blasting my friends with “druid fire.”
8. The Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams
If I’m being honest, I’m probably including this one because it’s one of my all-time favorite epic fantasies. What struck me when I first read this book was the relative restraint Williams had when it came to magic, particularly compared to his contemporaries. “The Art,” as it’s called in Osten Ard, is a secretive, scientific ability the use of which is limited to a very select, very educated few — and using it generally causes more problems than it solves. The story of magic in this trilogy is a cautionary tale, the story of a powerful tool that is too dangerous for any but the most disciplined to study. And when those who for one reason or another have lost self-control abuse its power, bad things happen that affect not only themselves but the world at large.
7. The Belgariad and The Malloreon by David Eddings
It’s been a long time since I read Eddings. In these days of edgy, creative fantasy, his books are often relegated to the dusty back bin of genre cliches. But the magic system of his most popular ten-book saga (broken into two five-book series, the Belgariad and the Malloreon) sticks in my mind. The Will and the Word is a gift of the gods. It’s an innate ability — you either have it or you don’t — and using it couldn’t be simpler. You gather the will to do something, and you speak a word to carry that will into action. Sorcerors in Eddings’ work can create objects out of thin air, change the world around them, and do pretty much anything else they can think of. The one thing they can’t do (or rather, that which they’re not allowed to do by their deity) is to cause something not to exist. This produces bad results for the caster, in the form of instant vaporization by a higher power. This is magic as wish fulfillment: think of something, anything, want it bad enough, say a word, and make it appear. Simple but powerful: the stuff of childhood dreams.
6. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter needs no introduction. Rowling reintroduced the masses to magic. Her books had children and adults alike swishing and flicking from Boston to Bangladesh. They deserve inclusion on a list like this for that alone, but there’s more to Harry Potter than mere popularity. The bildungsroman structure of the books allows the reader to learn magic as Harry learns it, and the rules of magic in Rowling’s novels represent a perfect balance of knowledge and mystery. She also managed to make wands cool again, which is no mean feat. And despite the importance of magic to the story, it never becomes a crutch or provides an easy solution. The main characters suffer what trials they face because of magic rather than in spite of it, and their own youth and relative inexperience force them to rely more on their wit and character than magical ability.
5. Star Wars
Star Wars is fantasy, as far as I’m concerned, and the Force is just another magic system. But it’s also one of the coolest. Despite the fact that at the end of the day, the Force is really just a combination of telekinetic ability and prophetic foresight, it somehow manages to become more than the sum of its parts: the Jedi order manage to seem more mystical and powerful in the Star Wars fan’s imagination than any three lesser fantasy wizards. Maybe it’s because it plays to a collective unconscious, but somehow the Force just hits close to home. Humans have believed in telekinesis and telepathy and fortune telling for ages, and the Force is simply a distillation of all that, a powerfully simple idea. Or maybe it’s the lightsabers. But either way, there’s something that feels real about the Force, like it’s something we should be able to tap into but can’t. Everyone has at one point or another (every geek, at least) sat at their desk or on their couch, arm raised, fingers spread, muscles tensed, willing that pen or soda bottle to fly across the room and into their waiting palm. It’s the kind of fantasy that is so ingrained in us that we probably wouldn’t be very surprised if, one day, it actually worked.
4. The Earthsea Series by Ursula K. LeGuin
The magic system in the Earthsea series might be one of the most ripped-off ideas in fantasy. In Earthsea, everyone and everything has two names: an everyday, descriptive name, and a true name, in the Old Speech, the ancient language of dragons, which, if revealed, provides skilled wizards the ability to control the person or thing so named. To protect oneself against magic, one must conceal one’s true name at all costs; consequently, divulging your true name to another is the sincerest sign of trust. The idea that names have power is as old as language, but LeGuin was arguably the first to introduce it to popular fiction. She was not the last, however. Christopher Paolini purloined the Earthsea magic system wholesale for his Inheritance series. Like in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, LeGuin’s classic series places a lot of emphasis on the relationship between power and responsibility.
3. The Long Price Quartet, by Daniel Abraham
Probably the most original of all the magical systems in this list, in Daniel Abraham’s vaguely Asian-inspired tetralogy, “Poets” can snare gods with verse. The Poets are sorcerors who, through magical poetic description, can bind to themselves godlike powers called andat. One, called Seedless, is the personification of a natural force controlling the destruction or removal of that which makes things grow — and as such has the power to cause abortions, or, more usefully, to remove the seeds from cotton with absolutely no labor, allowing it to be sold at a much more competitive price and consequently greatly increasing the economic and political power of Saraykeht, its influential host city-state.
2. The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
When it comes to magic systems, Brandon Sanderson is undeniably a resident master. His work can be polarizing, but even his critics agree that his creativity with magic does his work credit. Although all of Sanderson’s books feature innovative magic systems, Mistborn is undoubtedly the best and most memorable. It has not one magic system, but three: allomancy, the magical ability to “burn” ingested metals, granting the allomancer a variety of abilities; feruchemy, the ability to enhance one’s natural abilities with “metalminds”; and hemalurgy, the ability to steal allomantic powers by driving metal through the body of another. These systems are easily the most complicated I’ve ever encountered, and as such I’ve provided Wikipedia links rather than try to describe them fully herein. Mistborn is a good example of a flawed series that was buoyed by an incredible magic system. The story, while full of potential, was obtuse and suffered from problems of execution, but the allomancy kept the pages turning. The three books of the Mistborn trilogy contain some of the most entertaining magical fight scenes I’ve ever read.
1. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
Try to forget the latter half of the series for a minute and think about the first time you read about the Aes Sedai, the One Power, the taint on saidin, the Age of Legends, and the Dragon Reborn. Think about Callandor, balefire, Traveling, and the Choedan Kal. Think about the ter’angreal in Rhuidean, and the red doorways to the lands of the Snakes and Foxes. Think about that incredible prologue, when Ishamael gave his old friend a brief moment of tortuous clarity before Lews Therin broke the world. Think about knife-wielding images crawling out of playing cards and eyeless Myrdraal. Think about Rand fighting Ishamael in the sky above Falme. Now try to tell me with a straight face that the Wheel of Time isn’t one of the most influential sagas in modern fantasy. And all of those things are part of Robert Jordan’s enormous, creative magic system. There’s a whole host of modern fantasy authors whose work wouldn’t exist without Robert Jordan, the aforementioned Mr. Sanderson first among them. When people talk about genre cliches, they’re talking about the Wheel of Time, and that, albeit in a negative way, proves the power of this series. The care and time that Jordan spent in crafting the One Power, the methods of its use, the artifacts that aid and control its use, and the history of its use are unparalleled. Love or hate the books, this is the magic system by which all others in epic fantasy are measured. Jordan managed to combine sheer massiveness with intuitive structure: not only is the magic system big, but it works, and it works in a logical way, and you’re never confused by it (unless he wants you to be). The One Power is so well-crafted a system of magic that the reader doesn’t even think of it as magic. Jordan managed to create a magic system that took the place of real world physics, and became as natural to the reader as it was to the characters that wielded it. And for that, WoT deserves the #1 spot.
These are my top ten. What are yours? What did I miss? What shouldn’t be on here, and why not?