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Believing Impossible Things: Magic and Fantasy, Part I

Quick, now: what makes a fantasy story a fantasy story?

When I’m asked the well-meaning-but-terrifying question “what is your book about,” my shortest and most general answer tends to take a shape kind of like this: “Oh, it’s a big fat fantasy novel. You know, with swords and monsters and magic.”

With these three elements, I like to think I can narrow my story’s scope enough that potential readers will know if they want to hear more. The “swords” part probably suggests that my book’s got some things in common with historical or quasi-historical stories (like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books); the “monsters” part probably indicates that there will be invented creatures of one kind or another (though it’s certainly not only invented settings that can depict monstrous things). But the part that I suspect most clearly marks the kind of story I’m telling – that I know from experience is most likely to make someone lean in or turn away – is the word “magic.” Because I’m increasingly convinced that magic is the marker of fantasy stories.

But what are we talking about when we talk about magic?

The first definition to come to many people’s minds is the kind of magic showcased in the Harry Potter books and in your average sword-and-sorcery novel or MMORPG. This is the wizard in the D&D party casting Magic Missile: very showy, often involving formal words and gestures, most frequently (though not always) formally taught, and common in the culture it’s a part of. But it’s not the only model out there.

About 6 weeks ago, author Kazuo Ishiguro went on record in an interview with The New York Times expressing his concern that readers of his new novel, The Buried Giant, “are… going to say this is fantasy.” Setting aside the ideological debate that sprung up in the wake of his comments, consider the content of the book in question: according to Goodreads, it follows an elderly couple as they wander around the ruins of their not-quite-British homeland, shrouded in a mist that makes people forget their pasts. Is this magic?

Both Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Carey’s Kushiel books are the product of an enormous amount of historical research, although neither is set in the “real world” that readers know. Both series also have elements that are generally accepted not to exist in the real world (in no particular order and without differentiation: dragons, murderous shadows, precognition, and shapeshifting). These elements are seen as generally remarkable by the characters living in the setting, and their existence is not well-understood or explained; but they’re there, and they’ve always been there. Is this magic?

What about the feruchemy and allomancy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books? These powers are openly stated to have a genetic basis, and they’re fairly common in their respective populations, if not completely taken-for-granted. The time travel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series seems to follow similar rules: successful time travel has a genetic component, it’s linked to particular places and times, and there are other factors that make it easier to travel safely. Magic? Or science?

What about Star Wars’ the Force? Magic? Does your answer change if you’re considering only the three original movies versus all six extant movies (which offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for it)?

When we hear the word “magic,” what do we expect to see?

This question’s been at the forefront of my mind lately, as the first “really magicky” parts of my novel have come under the knife for revision, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Last April, I read a Locus interview with author Daryl Gregory where he said:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

At the time, this really resonated with me – perhaps because my fantasy-worldbuilding kept being disrupted by sci-fi-loving Husband asking questions like “but where does the magic come from?” – but as I get a little more distance from it, I find myself wondering. I’ve encountered fantasy stories where people attempt to figure out where their magic comes from. It seems to me like the final climax of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is all about taking control of the fundamental processes of magic (and basically inserting sharp objects into rocks). If a character in Harry Potter attempted to ascertain where their magic came from, would that make the story into science fiction? Or would it only be science fiction if it was discovered that the cause was genetic manipulation or radiation?

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Is the only difference the way that the story frames the unbelievable elements, that “magic” is unbelievable things that come from outside of people, where “technology” is people-derived? When Hermione Granger develops a new spell, is she using magic or technology or both?

A few months ago, I attended a Google Hangout interview with NK Jemisin through the Dive Into Worldbuilding series where she talked both about the new novel she has coming out later this year and about her philosophy on world-building. The two things that struck me most from this conversation were her points about assumptions she tries to avoid in her readers. First, she noted that people generally assume that science and magic don’t coexist, that the practice of science in a fantasy setting (or even the use of scientific language) is a rare commodity. But the thing that really resonated with me was her explanation for why she doesn’t use “magic” as a term in her books. The reason, she explained, was because “magic implies… differentiating between magic and mundanity.”

I think that might be my new favorite explanation: that when people use the word “magic,” they’re drawing a line between what is normal and what is uncanny. This can be different for your setting than for the real world – in fantasy, that’s often the case – and it can change over the course of the story. But “magic” as a concept carries undertones of something rare and precious and bizarre. By that definition, the mysterious stuff of Carey and Martin’s books is undeniably magic. The everyday conveniences of Harry Potter’s world, on the other hand, start to lose their rights to the title. Something that’s common – that’s just part of how the world works – wouldn’t quite be magic, not to the characters. Even if it’s never been seen before by the readers.

Of course, all this musing hasn’t done much to tidy up the definition of magic, or of fantasy — but as I tell the students in my sociology courses, definitions are always problematic, and people get uncomfortable with edge cases (like the Force in Star Wars, or Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, which are always identified as “technically science fiction”). For most readers, I suspect that Harry Potter-style wizardry falls neatly into a different category than the more pseudo-scientific approach to weird powers taken in Mistborn or Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. But are there other distinctions? Does the purported source of uncanny powers matter? George RR Martin offers up both religious and secular magic, some clearly magical creatures and some human mages and some whose nature isn’t entirely clear. Is a dragon always magical? An elf? A dwarf?

I suspect I’ll be thinking about this for a while longer. What do you think? What puts Ishiguro’s allegory about societies recovering from atrocity in the Literature section of Barnes & Noble, while Tolkien’s goes in the Fantasy section?

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Do You Want a Stroll or a Road Trip? On Reading Standalones and Series

I’m a creature of habit. That may be one reason why my list of favorite books includes so many series: once I’ve gotten comfortable with a setting and a cast of characters, I’m inclined to settle down in their world for as long as I can. Fortunately, long series are a pretty common element of epic fantasy, which by definition encompasses big stories; the tale I’m telling is currently slated to span ten books before it’s done. I’m the sort of person who’ll never roll my eyes upon hearing that a beloved series has expanded to encompass another book. And yet, when I’m testing out a new author, I’m inclined to look for standalones.

Of course, this is at least in part for efficiency reasons: if I’m unsure about an author, it’s easier to get a sense of their storytelling skills if I can see how they plot out a whole arc. But I think the main reason is because the big stories told by series have at least as much potential to let down their readers as they do to bring joy.

On the simplest level, this is because the nature of series writing leaves the author with many more traps to avoid. If you’re writing a series, whether you’re telling a succession of effectively standalone tales like the ones in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files or Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books or, like Stephen King in The Dark Tower or NK Jemisin in The Inheritance Trilogy, a story that’s basically one long novel stretched over a few thousand pages, each book needs to be crafted individually. Whether individual volumes are meant to stand on their own or not (which is a different discussion), readers come into a series expecting that each volume will have its own plot arc, its own mini-journey, and in all but a few of the most loosely connected examples, it’s also expected that each book will contribute something to the overarching plot of a bigger story. That’s something most series readers love and look forward to; it also requires authors to carry two different plot valences in their heads from the very beginning, and means that the odds of writing yourself into a corner go up exponentially. If JK Rowling had decided two-thirds of the way through her tale that Harry Potter shouldn’t live with his horrible relatives anymore, she would’ve had to jump through more hoops to get him away from them than if she still had the whole story sitting in front of her, unpublished and accommodating.

Besides the problem of juggling plots, there’s also the trouble of reader expectation. Readers who discover a series early in its publication history have lots of time between volumes to grow attached to characters, to gossip about plot twists and dream up the endings they want for “their story” – and sometimes, the ending the author chooses isn’t the one you’d have picked. This happened for me with Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, a guilty-pleasure choice of mine where I reached the final book having read and reread the others until I had sections nearly memorized, and then was left cold by how the author opted to end her story.

Obviously, the ways reader expectations are developed have changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet; George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books might be a too-obvious example of this, where any fan who wanders onto the discussion boards almost can’t help but be prematurely spoiled about the final picture Martin’s been slowly laying out with hints and prophecies. I’ve heard more than one fan say that if Character X ends up proving to be aligned with Interest C, as some readings of the clues suggest, they’re declaring the final books non-canonical (in the same way some people have done with the Star Wars prequels, or the new Star Trek movies). Giving fans more time with a story, and letting the anticipation build for its conclusion, opens the door to disappointment that can’t be there in the same way for something wholly contained in a few hundred pages.

In fact, time presents a whole set of problems for series writers. Sometimes, an author’s voice shifts from the first book to the last on a path that readers don’t want to follow. I had a difficult time with the last trilogy in Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange series for this reason; I found the final books, with their more “modern” slang and their constant references to heroes of old, to read like a caricature of what I loved in the earlier trilogies, and they didn’t find a permanent home on my shelves. Sometimes, as with Melanie Rawn’s Exiles trilogy, an author loses the muse that was whispering that story in their ear, and moves on to other projects: while I’m the first to agree with the argument that authors, as artists, should write what they want, and stop when they want (as Neil Gaiman memorably put it in a post on the subject, “George RR Martin is not your bitch”), I do understand the impulse to avoid all but completed series to avoid being left stranded in mid-stride. And (most) finally, like Robert Jordan/James Rigney, an author might die with their story unfinished. I’m not a big enough fan of the Wheel of Time series to have read the new books Brandon Sanderson authored using Rigney’s notes; my impression is that many fans think they’re better than they might otherwise have been (review links to io9 and includes spoiler warnings for the final book), but I’m sure there are others in the fan base who feel the story couldn’t truly be finished without Rigney there to write it.

And so, in short, it seems like series offer more risks to the reader, extra disappointment on a whole range of levels. There are extra responsibilities in place for the author who wants to write good series fiction; first, the responsibility of making sure that the seeds you plant in early books are tracked, of figuring out whether you want your books to have a grand arc beyond the individual volumes and of what pieces of that arc you want to fit into the smaller stories. As a reader and a writer, I’d also argue authors have some responsibility to make each volume stand as a complete story on its own. I don’t mean that readers should be able to dive into the middle of the series, but I don’t like cliff-hanger endings between volumes, especially when there’s going to be years until the next one’s released (I nearly turned my back on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy after the way the first book ended). Series have to do more work than standalone books to succeed in the story they’re telling: there are some authors who I count among my favorites, authors whose standalone work I read over and over again, who seem to choke when they’re faced with stretching a story over multiple books. Series can be tricky.

But when they work, in my view, they allow modern readers to fall into one of the best aspects of storytelling, the kind of storytelling that’s been around for a long, long time – of falling in with characters from legend, characters whose adventures are legion, and starting down the road with them knowing that there’s a long, long way to go. That’s why I’m writing one, and why I continue to embark on road trips with other authors familiar or otherwise.