When Magic Isn’t

I recently got around to reading the first of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, The Final Empire. It’s pretty good (full Weekly Read coming up later? Perhaps!). One of the distinguishing features of the series is the system of “magic” that it uses. The use of quotes is intentional, because about two-thirds of the way through the book I started to wonder if Sanderson was really dealing in magic at all.

The magic in Mistborn revolves around metals and what people can do with them. Allomancers can ingest small portions of certain metals, “burn” them, and thereby enhance their physical and mental powers. “Mistings” can burn only one particular metal, while “Mistborn” can burn all of them. Mistings are useful. My particular favorites were the “soothers,” who are able to calm or inflame another’s emotions to make them more cooperative. Mistborn, on the other hand, and basically superheroes, able to leap tall keeps in single bounds, possess extraordinary strength, and heal wounds more quickly.

Actually, the better analogy would be to characters in a video game. Indeed, one reviewer knocked Sanderson’s system for “sometimes feel[ing] a little like a video game trick (press X-Y-X-X to burn steel!). And, honestly, once you get past the “this is what this metal does” exposition, the constant references to characters burning this and pulling on that get old. It’s work-a-day, it’s formulaic it’s . . .

Not all that magical.

Which isn’t, inherently, a bad thing. I really like Allomancy (and the related Feruchemy that plays a role, too) – it’s certainly different than casting spells, waving around wands and such. But it does call for different characters wielding it. “Working magic” is my mind conjures someone like the wrinkled, slow, puppet-based Yoda of the first Star Wars trilogy, rather than the CGI-spawned ass kicker of the prequels. It takes some getting used to.

And it can seem kind of out of place for what is, after all, supposed to be fantasy. I’m not one to suggest fantasy has to have magic – far from it! The Water Road trilogy has not a whit of magic in it. But if you are going to build a world with magic, shouldn’t be a bit more magical and mysterious? Indeed, as one commenter put it elsewhere:

I’m inclined to label Sanderson’s Mistborn as hard sci-fi, because of the way he fleshes out the abilities of allomancers. This might seem odd, because the author really makes it look like magic. But the way they invoke their power, the limitations on its usage and strict adherence to the framework of physical laws that we the readers are already familiar with, strike me as less magical, and more of an empirically-discovered science, and thus some form of sci-fi rather than fantasy.

Putting to one side the hard/soft discussion, that sounds about right. Part of what makes magic special is that it’s inherently vague, squishy, and unpredictable. It shouldn’t work all the time, just because you know how to work with the constituent parts. It’s about corralling the elements and playing with the very stuff of existence, after all, not just figuring out how to use the natural world to do things better.

Or not. One of the great things about fantasy is that it’s only bounded by your imagination. I don’t think I’d come up with a system like Sanderson’s, but his works for his world and it’s consistent. It’s hard to ask more than that, even if, maybe, I do.



One thought on “When Magic Isn’t

  1. Pingback: Weekly Read: The Final Empire | JD Byrne

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