The Runelords

On the Importance of Choosing a Good Magic System

Last week we discussed a series of fantasy books that, despite having a pretty standard “new age and elves” style magic system, is still beautiful and memorable because of the way characters and prose wove together to make a completely different kind of magic.

But what if you are not a supreme prose stylist, but simply an excellent writer attempting to give the world a rollicking good yarn?  Unless you do something different, of course, your books are very unlikely to ever see the light of day, and sometimes, if they do, they won’t make a huge impression.

A good way to make sure you leave a mark is via the magic system.  Make the rules of the magic strange, different excessively arcane, and then figure out all the ramifications… and you’re likely to have a brilliant story waiting to get out.

runelords cover David farland

David Farland’s (real name, Dave Wolverton) The Runelords is probably the best example of  a hugely imaginative magic system with serious consequences for all involved that I’ve come across in a lifetime of reading big fantasy series.

In short (and attempting not to give spoilers), each Runelord (generally, albeit not always of noble birth) can take “endowments” of different characteristics from people willing to give them.  This makes them stronger in that particular characteristic.   The downside is that the person who donates the ability loses that quality.  So giving an endowment of brawn leaves you weak as a babe, one of sight blind as a bat, etc.

You can give the strangest things, and all are useful.  Grace, for example. Or – and this one has drastic consequences – metabolism.

A lot of the politics of the series revolve around how to accumulate endowments, and how to protect those who’ve given the endowments from being massacred by people who don’t particularly want their rivals to have that power.

It makes for a nicely convoluted political backdrop to a “journey of the hero” plot with some truly alien bad guys getting tossed in once the foundations are laid.

This isn’t necessarily my favorite fantasy doorstop series (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that that one is probably The Wheel of Time endless descriptions of ladies’ blouses and all), but I wholeheartedly recommend this one not only to readers who are looking for some fantasy fun, but also to other writers.  It’s a masterful example of using your magic system to shape the life and politics of a secondary world.

And as the original 4 book series (which I’ve recently finished) advances, the consequences of the magic system grow ever deeper.

Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story Writer.  His latest novel is Incursion: Shock Marines.

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