Reviewer Roundtable: Mechanics of Magic in Urban Fantasy
Join us for One Book Two’s first Reviewer Roundtable! These discussions will feature three or more of our reviewers and/or guests and focus on a topic or trend we’re passionate about, related to the books we review here.
It seems that magic in the Urban Fantasy genre, by default, needs to be “toned down” magic. I say this because if civilization is already technology based, why would technology have developed in the first place with plenty of magic readily available? Thus I think for it to work, you have a few people using magic and they are mostly hidden from society – or were, up until the story takes place.
I agree, provided you mean socially and not in terms of intricacy or power. While that is the pervading perspective in Urban Fantasy that is set in the otherwise “real” world, there are exceptions. The Allie Beckstrom series by Devon Monk comes to mind. She simply created a slightly alternate history where magic was abruptly unleashed on the world after technology had taken root, and the two now exist alongside each other.
What is causing the trend with it being secretive though? Frequently the main character doesn’t bother to hide that they use magic, or actively advertise it (Dresden comes to mind). The “mankind isn’t ready for the knowledge” tactic tends to bore me…
Yes, I meant socially – and those are some interesting points, especially about Allie. Perhaps Allie should be considered MagicPunk as it blends magic and technology specifically? The author obviously put thought into how magic interacts with technology – most other Urban Fantasy novels I can think of do not blend in that way, with the world knowing and embracing magic.
I agree with your last point. I think it varies. Most of the time, it’s probably the fear of public reaction – the medieval villagers with pitchforks perspective, that causes magic users as a whole to be secretive. Too much power in one person’s hands. Basically, the same arguments in X-Men about keeping track of those with powers.
One of the issues I imagine writers have to deal with, when deciding if magic is to be “open” or “secret”, is what to do about the imbalance of power it creates, as Percy mentioned. In the Allie Beckstrom series, magic took such a personal toll on everyone that it was used sparingly, maintaining more of a balance between the haves and have-nots (until they figured out how to use proxies, that is!). In Jocelynn Drake’s Asylum Tales, the magic community is so powerful that everyone cowers from them in fear. The only reason the non-magic population seems to exist at all is because the magic folk think humans are beneath their notice and ignore them most of the time. Other stories provide talented people a choice – be governed, or be neutered.
As to the Magic and Technology point, the Magic Bites series by Kate Daniels addresses this in a creative way. I’ve only read the first book, so you may need to check me here, but magic rises and falls in the world like waves. When magic is up, technology doesn’t work. When magic is down, technology is necessary. It makes life difficult, but is also fairly unique.
Urban Fantasy is still a relatively young genre but it seems what could be a trend has become standard: that magic is simply a flavor to provide for a supernatural alternative to an otherwise Traditional Fiction story. Much like The Walking Dead on AMC is really a character drama that happens to have zombies in it. While I love my Urban Fantasy novels and look forward to each new release, I’d really like to see mechanics explored such that the magic becomes a character of it’s own. I see this frequently in Traditional Fantasy in novels such as the Kingmaker series by Patrick Rothfuss, but not here. What do you think?
I do like it when the magic is unique to the story. For example, Devon Monk’s Allie Beckstrom series has very different mechanics for magic than what is presented in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files – yet both books describe its nature well enough that it does become a character in the story. I understand how it’s being used and what the consequences and idiosyncrasies of it are.
I know not all writers focus on this. In those cases where it is simply a narrative tool, I at least want the mechanics of the magic to be consistent. I don’t want to see an author violate rules they previously established. If they don’t want to address any rules, I’d like to know the reason why it works in one situation and not another. What about you two?
Nowadays I completely agree. Years ago I enjoyed reading my Dungeons & Dragons novels where the stories all used the mechanics of the D&D roleplaying game. Many authors wrote within the world, but they all used the same rules. Ultimately this perspective is really a reflection of me. I wanted total consistency and that may be why I read so much gaming fiction back then – I could go into it knowing the rules. It felt safe. Now that I’ve gotten past that, I think it would be tough to return to that mindset. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan is a sort of bridge between that rules-centric system and open creativity, a vague difference between male and female magic – but they can still do so much.
Now I enjoy finding new systems of magic and seeing what each author does. Hines’ Libriomancy series is awesome for this! It’s the same for the two series you guys mentioned.
You mentioned wanting to know why it works in one situation, and not another. I completely agree with that. I think a perfect example of where I have the same desire, and ultimately frustration, is the the Nightside series by Simon R. Green. I want to like the series so much – indeed, I’ve read 9 or 10 of them. They flow much like a Dresden Files novel and can be consumed in one or two sittings. Yet, the rules for magic seem nonexistent. The protagonist occasionally uses abilities with ease that would have solved countless problems in the past, yet he never even attempted those abilities then. For me, that hurts the experience and pulls me out of the story, as I find myself questioning why they didn’t do “this or that”.
This was fun, we should do it again – maybe pull in some of the others!