Thinking Through Type | Unique Magic Systems

I’ve recently started to ask a Bookworm Question of the Day on my Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes these questions die as soon as I ask them, and other times I get tons of interaction and lots of great discussion. Today was one of those days where lots of people participated. Due to the level of participation and all the, “This is great!” comments I got, I decided to turn it into a blog post. That way, people can continue to suggest and discuss and I don’t have to keep track of my Twitter feed and a two-year-old at the same time (very hard to do).

Feel free to pipe in with any comments. I’d love to keep this going, as it’s making my To Be Read (TBR) list EXPLODE.


What book has a unique magic system and why? Rule: Do not suggest Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. Everyone will suggest those books. 


Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor: Wishes are a currency with denominations.
Libriomancer –  Jim C. Hines: The guy can summon objects from a printed book with some restrictions.
Spellwrite – Blake Charlton: A magic system based on written words. Plus, the protagonist has a unique magic disability.
The Long Price Quartet – Daniel Abraham: Living poem demon magic
Warbreaker – Brandon Sanderson: Interesting use of colors in a magic system
Promise of Blood – Brian McClellan: Powder mages with great negative effects if overused and elite soldiers who can manipulate gunpowder
The Demon Cycle – Peter V. Brett: Interesting use of magic through symbols
The Barbed Coil – J.V. Jones: Involves magic via patters influencing the world around you
The Dagger and the Coin – Daniel Abraham: Magic is the power of suggestion from tiny spiders in the blood
The Vineart War – Laura Anne Gilman – A magic system based on wine
Psalms of Isaak – Ken Scholes: Uses magick scouts and a bloodletting to create a blood magic
Glamourist Histories series – Mary Robinette Kowal: The glamour based magic system, very three dimensional and lived in.
The Shadow Saga – Jon Sprunk: Magic comes from the shadows
The Black Prism – Brent Weeks: Interesting use of colors in a magic system
Runelords – David Farland: Plays with the idea of people using runes to steal other people’s attributes and adding them up
Coldfire Trilogy – C.S. Friedman
Godslayer Chronicles – James Clemens: A world completely shaped and run by the body fluid of gods that came four millennia ago. A very unique take on how a world would be if an immortal god lived with humans.
Inda – Sherwood Smith: Nobody poops because that’s what magic is for. Unique in its mundaneness.
On Stranger Tides – Tim Powers: Very unique take on voodoo
Shadows of the Apt – Adrian Tchaikovsky: Interesting world and ecology. Some can speak mind-to-mind, and there’s the aspect of aptitude, where some races can use technology and others can’t.
Cosa Nostradamus – Laura Anne Gilman: Magic based on electricity
The Disillusionists Trilogy – Carolyn Crane: Magic based on individuals with phobias, addictions, etc using their various issues to influence the behaviors of others
Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling: Because of the cleverness that Rowling used in naming. The names usually come from Latin.
The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss: The way to use the magic system is through using the true name of objects
Rough Magic – Kenny Soward:  Everyone has a wellspring of power which can be developed and tapped in various ways. For example, Raulnock the wizard is very astute and studies spells and hand formations, while Nikselpik is a bit of a “rockstar” and generally relies on his natural ability and “drugs” to achieve the desired results.
The Magister Trilogy – C.S. Friedman: Magic is powered by using the lifeforce of others
Winds of the Forelands – David B. Coe: Using magic makes your life shorter


On the flip side, I asked what makes magic systems less than unique. I got far fewer answers for this question, but here are the few I did get: 

Magic without consequences
When you can concoct d20 rules for a magic system in fifteen minutes.
“If I can figure out how to play it as I read, I’m already bored.”
Magic that causes something to happen based on effort of will
Magic based on waving your hands in the air and muttering phrases

Have more suggestions? Comments? Concerns? Please keep the discussion going. 

5 Responses

  • Oh yea. Now that is one heck of a list! You just crashed my TBR pile. lol. I have to agree with Carolyn Crane! I don’t know how I forgot that one. She has an amazing creation there. 🙂

    Thank you!

  • I tried to think of interesting magic systems in the books that I’ve read, and I came to the conclusion that most of them actually featured the same kind of standard “magic comes from life energy” or “it’s a gift you’re born with” systems. Sure, some of them were executed particularly well, some better than others, but they were still mostly just plays on the same old thing. Kinda sad that I couldn’t come up with any examples. The stuff featured in Mercedes Lackey’s “Valdemar” books, for example (because I’m way too familiar with those books) have lots of different kinds of magic, different schools and disciplines, but it’s still a basic manipulation of energy. Whether you’re getting that energy from yourself, nodes and pools of magical energy that form in nature, or using the energy released by a particularly bloody murder, it’s still part of the same thing, so it didn’t feel right to suggest it. There’s the mind-magic in those books, too, which isn’t true magic but instead is more along the lines of psychic ability, firestarting and mindspeech and whatnot, and that comes about because of a Gift present in some people, a natural aptitude or talent or something is switched in the brain. Dunno if that would count, since it’s canonically not “true magic.”

    I agree, though, that magic without consequences is a real turn-off. Everything has consequences. If swinging a sword around has consequences in building muscle, fatiguing a person, or accidentally slicing your toes off, it’s still a consequence. So no matter how powerful a magic-user is, I always figure they should show some signs of actually earning that power, and showing the consequence of having done so.

    And yes, my TBR list has exploded with this post, too. Some of the descriptions of magic systems really intrigue me, and I want to read to see how they’re executed!

  • What makes magic systems less than unique.

    No rules. I hate magic with no rules, limitations, or structure. ESPECIALLY when it is used as easy escape.

    For example, the protagonist is being attacked by a dangerous animal, foe, or being and suddenly, out the clear blue, discovers they have some type of magic with which to save themselves. And I agree wholeheartedly, even worse is when said magic has no cost or consequence.

    As far as structure goes, I can deal with levels or different strengths varying from person to person. What I don’t like is no distinct pattern. Instead magic seems to give each individual a different ability, again, all depending on what is needed in the story, at the time. Even worse is when you never ever see that same ability again.


  • Angela

    Paper Mage by Leah Cutter has the central character using origami paper folding to do her magic. Plus I thin k there was another mage who got his power by drinking from a special spring.

    And Sean Stewart has a really interesting take on vodoun by giving it to a family in Houston who had no knowledge of or contact with the community and thus have their own names for the loa and own ways of interacting with them.

    I don;t like it when a magic system feels like it’s been set up the way it has just because the author wants it too seem unique. i’d rather the magic system fit the setting than whether or not it was different from every other magic system i’ve ever read.

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