What kind of magic would you want to have, if you could have the magic from a famous novel or series? If you leave the choices too open ended, you’ll never get any sort of groundswell behind just one; there are just too many magic systems out there. So for the sake of this thought experiment, let’s narrow our choices down to three series with rather distinctive magic systems: The Kingkiller Chronicles, Mistborn, and Harry Potter. First, let’s examine each of them for the pros and cons.
Kingkiller Chronicles – Naming and Sympathy
In The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss introduces us to magic via two distinct subforms. Sympathy allows you to alter the world by the use of similar things. You create fire by amplifying the heat from a candle; you levitate a horseshoe by holding an iron nail. There are subtleties and calculations involved, but the general principal is that the more similar an item you have, the greater the influence you have over it.
Naming involves knowing the true name of an object. Learning these names is no small task, but once learned and mastered, you gain control over that item. Knowing the name of stone would allow you to shatter stone walls. Knowing the name of fire would let you through fireballs like a “proper” wizard.
Pro: A more or less logically consistent magic system. You’ll have a good deal of control of the world around you. You aren’t beholden to any particular item or substance for your power, though for sympathy you will have better results with appropriate materials at hand.
Con: It can be a dangerous form of magic to use. If you use sympathetic binding with your own body (taking it’s heat, or its mass, or any other aspect for your sympathy) you can suffer fatal side effects, such as sucking the heat from your body or crushing yourself trying to move a large mass. Naming is as dangerous for the mind as sympathy is for the body. There is a strong risk of going insane.
Mistborn – Allomancy
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series starts with the novel of the same name. While there definitely is a plot to the book, it does spend most of the book explaining the magic system. Allomancy is a technical marvel of fantasy storytelling, a magic system so thoroughly explained as to be almost a science. In fact, many characters in the world who are fully aware of allomancy do not believe in the supernatural.
In short, allomancy is the use of metals by certain gifted people to produce a tangible (magical) effect. A regular allomancer can only manipulate one of these metals, a “mistborn” can use all of them; there is no middle ground. Each metal, when ingested (generally a small quantity, powdered and mixed with alcohol) allows the allomancer to “burn” it for a specific effect. Pewter enhances physical speed, strength and toughness. Steel allows you to push metals away from you; iron to pull them toward you. Tin makes your senses sharper; brass allows you to dampen emotions in others. There are plenty of other metals and effects if you’re interested in researching allomancy.
Pro: It’s a very simple magic system for the user. With a bit of practice, a mistborn can use steel and iron to bounce around like spiderman; use pewter to fight like a musclebound ninja; use tin to see better than a cat and taste poisons in food; use brass to manipulate anyone they meet.
Con: It’s not the most versatile of magic systems. A mistborn is rather superheroic, or like a hero from an anime, rather than a wizard. You won’t be throwing fire and lightning, or enchanting magic swords, though with steel you can shoot coins like bullets. You’re also dependent of keeping an array of metals in your system, some of which can be toxic if not burned away regularly.
Harry Potter – Being a Wizard
J.K. Rowling’s masterwork doesn’t call its magic system by any name. Magic is too common and ingrained into the wizard population for them to consider it anything other than “magic.” Wizards work magic, and its ways are innumerable and unfathomable. Even the greatest of wizards always have more that they seek to learn and understand, and much of the magic that wizards use is poorly understood. Though generally of the “chant and gesture” form of wizardry, there are also considerations of bloodline, wand, and the combination of wand and wizard that play into the effects of spells.
For the wizard of the Harry Potter universe, there is no such thing as impossible. This can be a double-edged sword, because improbably side effects seem just as likely to be a detriment than a help. A mispronounced spell can remove a bone instead of mending it. A faulty wand can explode in the wielder’s face.
Pro: Infinite wonder. There is always something new to discover, some ancient misunderstood magic to puzzle out. As long as you live, you will never gain complete mastery over magic, always finding some new challenge to strive for. You will have the power to teleport (“apparate“), levitate objects, mend broken crockery, and see into the past and future. If you can imagine it, there is probably some way to do it with magic.
Con: The odds of things going awry are horrific. You’re reliant on a wand for much of your power.
Allomancy seems too simplistic, not as a magic system, but as a wizard system. If I want to be a wizard, I want to do wizardly things. Naming and Sympathy are pseudoscientific, but both fraught with hazards that seem to outweigh their benefits. As random and haphazard as the magic of the Potterverse may be, I think it would still be the most fun and useful of the three for daily use, and several of the practitioners are even sane. I’m going to go with the Potters on this one.