Trying to explain magic is like trying to explain life, or God. At least, it is if you’re a character in one of my books. I, on the other hand, have inside information.
And I’m going to share a little of it with you, at the request of a lovely reader.
Those of you who are reading my books know some things, with more revealed in each book (because honestly, I find it dull to have everything laid out in exacting detail at the outset, with no surprises left). There’s more to come, believe me.
Magic is a huge and wonderful challenge for a writer. We get to decide what magic is, how it works, why it works and who it works for, what it’s capable of and (even more importantly) what its limitations are.
We decide how much we’ll explain and how much mystery we leave. We decide whether characters will use spells or wands or potions or elements to control magic, whether magic obeys the laws of physics as we understand them, or whether it exists beyond them–and what that means for the world we’ve created.
This is by no means an exhaustive examination of the magic system in the Bound trilogy, but it might answer a few questions. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, and warn if they pop up.
Today we’ll look at Sorcerers and Sorceresses, and magic-users with that type of magic who don’t quite qualify at that level. I’ll be saying “he” because that’s how this sort of magic tends to skew, especially in Tyrea, but we all know that Sorceresses have the capacity to be every bit as powerful.
Again, we’re only covering the basics here, or this will become a very long post, indeed. And we’ll focus on Tyrea, because there are factors that affect things in Darmid and Belleisle.
The easiest way to think of magic is to compare it to electricity. Assuming the power bill is paid up and the house is well-maintained, you can plug a cord into the wall and get power. And it’s all the same power. Plug a blow-dryer in at a bathroom outlet, and it’s going to get the same juice as the toaster in the kitchen.
Of course, the effects are quite different, aren’t they?
Your blow-dryer’s not going to make you toast, even if you bring it to the kitchen. And you could try to dry your hair with that toaster, but I really wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t like soggy roots and the smell of burnt hair.
That’s really the best way to think of natural magic skills, too, though it’s not a perfect analogy. A toaster was created to toast (I’m going to keep saying toast until it doesn’t look like a real word anymore. Toast). In the same way, a Sorcerer might have a natural skill with, say, fire creation. The Sorcerer will still have to work to develop that skill, but it will be fairly simple if he’s strong and puts the work in. It’s like walking. He has to learn, but it becomes second nature if nothing interferes.
Now, not everyone in Tyrea has natural skills. Even if many people have the ability to channel a little magic, most people won’t have the capacity to use enough to have any effect at all on the world around them. They may not even be aware that the magic is in them.
In fact, great and useful magic is rare–especially when monarchs have a tendency to off anyone who threatens them, but that’s another topic entirely. One fifty people might have middling magic, enough to make their lives easier and keep them healthier than most, but not enough to accomplish much in a practical sense, no matter how hard they try.
One a thousand might be capable of great things, IF he has training. And the greatest magic is rarer still.
So what happens when we move beyond natural skills? What about things like [BOUND SPOILER] Aren’s ability to change into an eagle? What about Severn’s mind-connection with a flying horse? These aren’t skills they were born with. They’re entirely learned.
Going back to appliances: You could turn a toaster into a lamp by making modifications to it. It would run on the same electricity, and if the modifications are done correctly, it could work very well.
Maybe not as well as if you’d just bought a damn lamp, of course. The same is true with magic. A developed skill can be quite effective, and with more practice comes mastery. But it takes much longer to develop a learned skill than a natural one, and it’s far more dangerous and difficult (TORN SPOILER: see Aren and Severn’s respective skills with fire for an example of this). And there are some things that can’t be learned, or that would be too difficult to bother with, and this varies between individuals. One person might pick up transformation after five years, another might still screw it up after twenty, or a hundred.
Also, no one expects to pick up more than a handful of fully-developed skills (plus an assortment of unrefined minor skills) in his lifetime. You can turn that toaster into a lamp-toaster-BBQ lighter-bedwarmer-camp stove-battery charger, but at some point you’re going to find that none of the functions work properly because it’s a bit too… well, diversified.
There’s plenty that can go wrong with magic. It might be bound, and therefore present but useless. If the power supply is cut off completely, the effects can be disastrous and far-reaching. Magic depends on magic to sustain itself, so if magical plants and creatures are removed from the land, the magic begins to die.
And as stated in the books, picking up new skills has the added danger of unwanted effects. Sort of side-effects of attempting unfamiliar magic. These are unpredicatable, and can range from a slight drop in the temperature of the surrounding air (common, and thought to be related to unfamiliar magic requiring an energy catalyst), to bodily injury to one’s self or others. Even seemingly simple magic is not something to be attempted casually.
The dangers of magic go deeper than this, in ways few people have had to experience. You see, magic is a wonderful thing in many ways, aiding in healing and learning. This is actually something of a side-effect of magic protecting people from itself. Those effects mentioned above are only the tip of the iceberg, and without protection…
Arrrrgh. There’s so much I want to tell you all, but this post is already getting long, and I’d hate to ruin any surprises.
We’ll get there. Soon.
Okay, this has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for a shorter post on Potioners in a few weeks!