Friday, January 14, 2011

On Magic Systems

Back to Brandon Sanderson today. I would apologize for all the attention I'm giving him, but I really do love his books. (Also, we're heading into the climax of Warbreaker, so the storm that is a Sanderson ending is about to break.)

Today I'd like to talk a bit about magic. I'll probably do a post later on in this year about magic's overall role in fiction, but today I'm just going to examine what I like (and maybe dislike) about Sanderson's systems. The goal here is to formulate some general trends to adopt for my own (eventual and various) magic systems.

This is the one he stole from me. Except not.
Around the time I read Elantris, I had been thinking about magic and its portrayal in fiction and how I might assign rules or otherwise explain how it works. Being a reader and writer and otherwise rather fond of words, I devised a system wherein you write out what you want to happen (in fully-formed sentences, using a magic pencil that can draw lines in the air) in order to create an effect.
Then I read Elantris.
Then I mentally kicked myself. (Note: This happens a lot when I read Sanderson's work. I'll probably talk about that in a couple of days.)
Anyway, humorous anecdotes out of the way, let's talk about magic.
What I like: As I said, the writing idea was one I had been working on myself, so I'm definitely a fan. Any kind of symbol usage in a magic system gets my interest. I don't know, I think there's just something intrinsically and resonantly mystical about using a set of pseudo-incomprehensible images to invoke your power. It's implied that the system can be understood, but you may or may not ever learn how to understand it. Plus, if the symbols are well-described (or included in an appendix or something) then it adds a powerful visual element to the usage of the magic system (and increases the other possible geeky uses for the magic system by about a hundred fold.)
What's not so great: It's the Force. I mean, that's basically what's going on here. AonDor taps into a mystical energy source that permeates the entire world and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I'm not really blaming Sanderson for using this concept -- he handles it very well and there are enough subtle differences (as well as blatant ones) to differentiate it from the Force that it works. My problem, rather, is that this idea is so prevalent in fantasy as a whole (at least it seemed that way when I was reading Elantris). So the book just loses a few points on the originality scale for that.
Also, though this has more to do with the storyline than anything, I'm not a huge fan of Sanderson's revelation at the end of the book that there are other ways to use the Force. I like it as a world-building aspect... to a degree... because I'm always a fan of options. But I don't like this information coming to us at the absolute end of the book, with vaguely hinted promises that we'll study this idea in a later novel (especially when said novel hasn't been planned for yet). Also, again, it reeks of Star Wars and its vastly-expanding roster of Force-using, quasi-religious traditions.
(Side note. I find it interesting that the book that vaulted Sanderson onto the stage, and also created his reputation as "the magic system guy," also has the, arguably, least original of his magic systems. I guess it makes sense that the resonance of this system allowed him to ease into the market, as opposed to taking a chance at totally alienating readers with a more original form of magic. Thoughts for another day, perhaps.)

Mistborn Trilogy
Okay... here's where things get tricky. Mistborn has no fewer than three magic systems, though they are all arguably interconnected. I think it'll be best to break these down into sub-headings in order to focus on one at a time.
This is the "main" system. An allomancer drinks a special metallic mixture, and can then "burn" those metals in order to create an effect. Different kinds of metals create different effects, and only certain people can burn certain metals. There are other limits and tricks to it as well, of course (with Sanderson, there always are) but I think that's enough of an overview for now.
What I like: Clear power source. It's fantastically easy to create drama with this system. You can have your characters be ridiculously overpowered and constantly learning more about their capabilities, but all you need to do is take away their metals at the right time and you have instantly created tension. I love it. Some of the best moments in this trilogy were when the allomancer characters that you cared about had to deal with other allomancers -- or even particularly dangerous non-allomancers -- when they were either low on or completely without their metal mixtures.Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
The limits. Allomancy can create some rather silly effects (the ability to affect emotions, to me, stands out as being somewhat incongruous with the rest), but most of the powers are clearly defined. What is more, the especially memorable and powerful ones (Pushing and Pulling, for me) only affect metal. This creates some interesting scenarios when a character needs to bring along metal to use as a jumping point or a weapon or so on. It really makes you look at the world differently as you read the book, which leads to my next point.
The worldbuilding. This is a fantastic magic system because it has clear implications for the world. Metal weapons, for example, are nearly useless in this world because an allomancer could just take your weapon away from you. The most valuable form of currency in the world is not gold or jewels, but a rare metal that creates an especially powerful ability. These kinds of details color the already creative landscape and really help the world to feel distinctive.
What's not so great: The lack of limits. I mentioned the emotional powers above. That kind of thing makes this system a bit goofy at times. Don't get me wrong, I still loved these books and the way Sanderson handles the powers (yes, even the goofy ones) is masterful. But the powers themselves just seem... a bit out of place, I guess. At least if you consider Allomancy by itself. It would have been nice if the system could have been limited to tangible effects. There's one that makes you stronger, there's one that pulls on metals, there's one that detects other allomancers, there's even one that destroys all your metals. But influencing emotions? Seeing the future? Eh... kind of starting to lose me there. What is more, I never felt that the emotion-influencing thing was ever used all that well. It was there, it had some influence here and there, but it was really hard to keep track of and gauge it's power. In an otherwise focused and limited system, powers like these stood out as being somewhat inconsistent, and that weakened the system a bit.

I think I'll continue this tomorrow.

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