What are some of the choices in creating magic systems in fantasy?
For originality, Steven Erikson’s idea of the Warrens was really something different. I enjoyed his Malazan books of the fallen, but they eventually got a little bogged down in the storyline, or maybe the characters didn’t grab me as much as some of the earlier novels (Gardens of the Moon is a classic). The originality in the magic did not abate though.
As much as I liked David Gemmell, his magic was pretty straightforward and fairly familiar from the SFF spectrum.
I guess as fundamental distinctions go, one of the most basic is Innate Magic Vs Learned Magic. For example in the Earthsea books, or Wheel of Time series, the talent was there from birth, whereas in other books – I think one of the Lawrence Watt-Evans’s books comes to mind – it is a skill that can be learned, a bit like learning what needs to go into a science experiment in our world to make it work according to our physical laws.
I remember a great little scene (not sure what book this was from) – this skinny, white-bearded, yet very fit Mage, pounding away with his feet on some sort of platform to generate the energy for his spell. The idea here was a sort of conservation of energy, where the Mage had to first generate the energy with his own sweat before he did the spell. That was kind of neat. He also got to burn off lots of calories.
You can have a blend as well. In my fantasy novel The Calvanni, there are innate magic-users (Sorcerers) who are quite powerful, yet rare, while most others can be trained in other less powerful forms of magic (Druids, Priests and Priestesses). The premise was that the Sorcerers came to dominate their world and formed a magic-using nobility. The power in the upper classes – feared and hated by many – waned over time and the Druids took control, forcing a purge of the now ‘evil’ Sorcerers and monopolizing magic.
Another fundamental distinction is just how Powerful is Powerful? Is the pinnacle of magic the ability to obtain a vision, or perhaps influence a person’s thoughts – as in shamanism – or can an ‘Adept’ wipe out armies with the wave of a hand (Pug from Fiest comes to mind)?
I think some books take the ultimate power of the Mage way too far. I like it better when the magic-user is limited, and has to pay for the use of his power.
What magic systems from fantasy literature take your fancy?