The Battle of Rothfuss and Pratchett

This week we’re going for something a little bit different (again). Instead of a review we’re going to be looking at the exciting (and I’m not going to lie slightly irritating) scheduling for the World Fantasy Convention as it looms on the horizons of our calendars.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m going to be dithering on about this time the World Fantasy Convention (we’ll call if the WFC for the sake of laziness and brevity) is an international convention for the publishing industry focusing on the fantasy genre. So perfect for me! It’s usually held in the USA but will sometimes make its way to Canada, and so this year marks only the third time that the convention has been hosted outside of North America. Great news for me!

If you go to the WFC website you can see a long list of attending members many of whom are delegate parties from publishing companies from around the world (Gollancz, Orbit, HarperCollins to name but a few) and many others are authors, old and new, famous and infamous. The rest are likely made up of people like me, keen enthusiasts and only just stepping foot into the industry! There’s panels, discussions and awards ceremonies so a little bit of everything that you could want!

So there was excitement abound recently as the WFC website placed up its first official line up of programming, with only a few short weeks to go! Of course, not all of the programming will be as fascinating as others to every single attendee but it all looks rather fabulous and my mouth is already salivating with the prospect of this fantastical buffet.

So I look down through the days and give a chuckle here and a coo there at various amusing and interesting panels. But what’s this!? “Sir Terry Pratchett: In Conversation” I am not ashamed to admit that there was a little bit of hyperventilation when I realised that Terry Pratchett is going to be an attending member of the WFC this year! It is not often that you are offered the opportunity to meet a man who is as much as part of British culture as he is an international best seller.

But, now! What is THIS!?

It turns out that the Conversations with Terry Pratchett happens to be scheduled for the same hour that the readings by Patrick Rothfuss is scheduled! This is a most unpleasant and undesirable turn of events. Mr Rothfuss is perhaps my favourite author, not only because of the lyrical and beautiful books he has produced but if you follow his blog you’ll see that he’s a very kind and humorous man who really does a lot for charity.

I am super super miffed at this, but I know that if it weren’t Patrick Rothfuss then it would be someone else and I’m sure another attending member would be just as upset as I was when I found out. But thankfully the scheduling does appear to have 2 readings per hour slot so I am hoping that this means the readings start every half an hour. This at least gives me half an hour of basking in the reflected glory of Terry Pratchett before I sprint to absorb the mighty awesomeness of Mr Rothfuss’s beard.

There are many other reasons to be going to the WFC and I am going to a small meeting with Tor UK the book publishers which I am also very much looking forward to. I am also hoping to get some meeting time with other publishers to get their take on what I can do to get into the fantasy game within the publishing industry.

But that’s all my news for now, no doubt I shall batter your peepholes with more news as it comes forward! And rest assured that I am deep into the second instalment of The Gentleman Bastard Sequence so there shall be a blog about that soon enough!

Until then, be well, be kind, and have fun!

The Mathematics of Magic

So how do you explain magic? Well that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s magic, it is the unexplainable, the fantastic and the absurd. But more and more magic is becoming a quantifiable thing within fiction as more heavily imposing ‘magic systems’ are written into fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good magic system, but surely there’s also a point where you have to say “well, it’s magic.” So this article is going to be about the pros and cons of having a magic system.

One of the first pros for a magic system (and vice versa that this is a con for non-regulated magic) is that it stops the characters from using magic as a get out of jail free card. The reason that I say this is that without explaining how magic works to the reader, or at least showing the reader what magic can do and what it can’t do (after all, the rule is show don’t tell!), you can use it to do anything.

A nice simple example of this is where you pull the energy for magic from. If it’s not defined then it can leave the reader in suspense and make it a lot easier to surprise the reader, but that also runs the risk that the character can always stay one step ahead and away from danger.

Take for example a magic system that define (very loosely) where magic gets its energy from. In Steven Erikson’s Malazan series the magical realms called ‘warrens’ are the source of magic and a wizard can draw on them to perform magical feats. But the more you ‘open’ your warren and the longer you hold it open for the more strain it puts on the wizards. So this sets a limit on the wizard’s use of magic as to how much of a magical battering they can take.

Similarly when we look at Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series magical abilities are gained by ‘burning’ certain metals. Different metals produce different effects and you’re still subject to the laws of physics. So you can’t just stand on one leg and use magic to push a house down. That house is heavy and isn’t going anywhere, you’re going in the opposite direction.

So by having a system in place whereby you can see the limits of the use of magic it means that you can’t (without having a gaping maw of a plot hole) just use magic willy-nilly to save the day. So for Malazan you can’t just keep your warren open for as long as you want to do whatever you need, you’ll get torn apart. And for Mistborn, if you run out of metal then you’re just a normal person.

Of course there is some expectation that something will swoop down and save the day (whether you want to live up to that or not is up to you!) but this will stop you from releasing the tension with: “And with a magical WHOOSH the enemy were all turned into dandelions and our heroes were swept away on a magic carpet made of bacon to forever romp in fields of butterscotch and quaff ambrosian wine! Huzzah!”

Okay so maybe that’s an extreme example, but you get the idea. A tangible limit to magical forces, or how magical practitioners can use those forces restricts how much they can use it as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. This doesn’t mean you can’t push those forces, and push your characters to help them get out of those situations,  but it does mean that you then have a measurable cost for that push.

Another pro along the same line as this one is that a defined magic system that is known to the reader, if used correctly, can be used to build tension in the story. For example, if you have a magic user who finds themselves behind enemy lines and vulnerable but there’s something that the readers know will negate their magic, the story becomes a lot more tense as the readers wonder how the magician will get out of their hairy situation.

However, there are cons that come with a defined magic system of course. It can be easy to get carried away in the costing of powers and place too many limitations on your magic system. Why is this such a bad thing you ask? Well, ultimately because it’s magic! Magic is supposed to need our suspension of disbelief and not have us taking a pencil and paper to try and figure out how it was done. I believe that that sense of mystery and the fantastical is part of what makes the fantasy genre so compelling. Part of that universe is something that you can’t be explained, it can be utilized and you might understand it, but it can’t be explained away and made mundane.

I think that whether or not you want to have an in-depth system for using magic ultimately comes down to how deeply you want magic to be used by your main characters in your books. If your protagonist is a heavy magic user then it probably won’t do to have magic as a completely unexplained phenomenon in your world. That’s why the young protagonist slowly learning along with the reader is a popular model. It develops the character and explains how the universe works at the same time.

But then if you would prefer your magic users on the border, as secondary or tertiary characters then the magical forces do not need to be well defined. It could even contribute to the plot, as the protagonist desperately tries to understand these forces that are being thrown around in a manner generally detrimental to physical health. By having magic without borders, magic is left as a mystical force in the universe. Something barely understood but that is entwined with the forces of life, creation, death and destruction.

I hope that you enjoyed this blog post, and that all you wordsmiths out there are forging prose with great grace and ease!