Recommended Reading | Unique Magic Systems

Most speculative fiction readers reach a point where they are sick of the same-old-same-old in magical terms. There’s only so much waving of hands and incanting Latin sounding words that I can handle before my brain starts looking for something else, something that engages my mind a little more.

That’s where unique magic systems come into play.

Here’s a list of a few books off the top of my head that have unique magic systems. Feel free to add all the ones I’ve forgotten/not added in the comments.

Vineart War – Laura Anne Gilman

The magic in this series is based on wine, the growing, creation, and drinking of it. While the first book might get a little term heavy, as readers are introduced to how exactly wine is produced, and how the magic of it works, it is really worth it. The secondary world is vibrant and alive, and the magic system is addicting. However, this series is truly epic, with plenty of perspectives, a complex political struggle, juxtaposed with complex personal struggles. The magic system just pushes it over the edge and makes it truly remarkable. Wine aficionados will truly appreciate this one.

The Mirror Empire – Kameron Hurley

This one hasn’t been released yet. It is set to drop on September 4, but it really should be on your list of books to purchase. This book is epic in every sense of the word. It’s also nonwestern, with strong female leads, and atypical social structures. There’s complex politics, and plenty of strife and struggle and strength in the face of all odds. You can’t overlook Hurley’s powerful prose, or the magic system that is based on stars and their waxing and waning which gives the whole thing some very grim astrological feel (I loved it, by the way). It also evens the playing field. People come into power, they have power, and then they lose power and somewhat regular intervals. It’s interesting just how that has impacted the societies that Hurley has created. Keep your eyes on this one.

Magic Ex Libris – Jim C. Hines

I know, I know. I just reviewed this one, so why am I mentioning it again? Well, because it fits. Pulling objects out of books is unique, no matter how you cut it. An entire magic system, including huge groups of people (for example, the different types of vampires) being created because they existed in a book and someone got excited and made them real is pretty cool. Fast, fun, and absolutely addicting, this is one of those series that I regret I didn’t read sooner. The entire magic system is based on the imagination, and the books that fuel the imagination. It is so very cool, and unlike anything I’ve read before.

The Powder Mage – Brian T. McClellan

This series has a lot going for it. There’s a blend of technology and magic that isn’t seen very often. Readers start the series out in the middle of a coup, which is opposite of how it usually works (most books make you work up to the coup). There’s powder mages, who mix magic and gunpowder. The downside of their magic is a struggle with addiction. Society is grim, and the reality of everything is raw and real. The characters are enjoyable, and the story is fast moving. McClellan blazed onto the fantasy scene with the release of his first book (which I am currently re-reading), and he has only grown more popular over time. He’s fantastically popular, and one of the reasons why is because of his almost flawless blend of raw talent, addicting plot, and unique elements fundamental to the story he is telling.

Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson

I know, you were all waiting for me to add this book to the list. This seems to be the “go to” book for most SpecFic readers looking for unique magic systems. In fact, all of Sanderson’s books have unique, memorable magic systems. Mistborn, however, seems to be a good entry point for readers new to Sanderson. The books are shorter, it’s a trilogy, each novel is rather self contained but also tells the larger story that the entire series is covering. The characters are three dimensional and easy to love and get behind. The magic is based on the manipulation of metal, which is done in a very cool way. In fact, this is one of those magic systems that has stuck with me, and is often used as a comparison for other magic systems I read about.

Craft Sequence – Max Gladstone

This series is absolutely amazing, and Gladstone is one hell of a fantastic author. I really want him to get a ton of attention for the work he has put out there. The magic system is as wonderful as the world building (which is out of this world – amazing). The magic system is based on power pulled from the earth and stars, or the soulstuff from other people. Gladstone has this crazy knack for perfectly merging the world, complex societies, characters, magic, religion and a fantastic plot. He’s crazy talented, and his magic system just pushes his work over the world.

The Dagger and the Coin – Daniel Abraham

Spiders. Inside of people. A religion focused on spiders. That’s disgusting, but it’s certainly unique. This series rivals George R. R. Martin’s in every way (and I hate to admit, I actually like it better than A Song of Ice and Fire). Complex, political, with plenty of different perspectives and a lot of blood (once scene still haunts me). Abraham is an incredible author, his writing is out of this world wonderful and the magic system is… well, the spiders made me a little sick, but they are also very memorable. This series has been celebrated all over, and it deserves it. Abraham has created something incredible.

C.S. Friedman

Any of her books. ANY. OF. THEM. She is one of the best writers of antiheroes, unique worlds, and memorable magic systems out there. Every Friedman book I read changes me in a little way. I love her, and I love her dark plots, complex characters, and magic that is never really what it seems on the surface. Everything has a price, and Friedman excels at sucker punching readers with what, exactly, that price is.

The Black Jewels – Anne Bishop 

The world, like the magic system, is incredibly complex. It took me a little while to get a grip on just how Bishop created the world, and it took me just as long to figure out how the magic system was structured. The power a person can control is represented by the color of the jewel they possess. The darker the jewel, the more powerful the magic user. The world is run by strong (sometimes mean) women. The plot is dark, and involves slavery and plenty of sexual themes, but if that doesn’t bother you, this is a great series to explore.

The Disillusionists – Carolyn Crane

This is an urban fantasy series that I devoured, and I really didn’t expect to like it enough to finish the first book. The reason why it is going here, is because of the disillusionists themselves. They use the things that handicap them as their strength to manipulate others. Our protagonist is a hypochondriac, but through the disillusionists, that’s not something that holds her back, but it is something that makes her incredibly powerful. This is a great series for people interested in my Special Needs in Strange Worlds column to read. It’s a fantastic series for urban fantasy lovers, and it’s a great series for people who like all of those things, and unique magic as well.

Zoo City – Lauren Beukes

I don’t really know if having to carry an animal around with you as a punishment counts as a magic system, but I’m going to count it as one. However, this book is absolutely addicting. It takes place in South Africa (locations out of the US and UK really interest me). The protagonist, Zinzi, is hard not to love. She has a talent for finding things, and she ends up in situations over her head due to that. Beukes brings the world to life, and Zinzi is a fantastic character to experience it through. Beukes has made an incredible name for herself as an author. She seems to transcend genre, and part of the reason why is because every time I read her books, I wonder if it’s a magic system she’s dealing with, or just a really cool aspect of the world that I didn’t expect.

This isn’t even the tip of the unique magic system iceberg. In fact, the only reason I’m stopping this post is because I have to go to bed or I’ll be horrible to work with tomorrow. I’m always looking for more unique magic reads, so please, PLEASE fill me in on the comments. This is one post I’d love to update again and again as I run across more and more books.

9 Responses

  • Glamour, in the Mary Robinette Kowal novels, is one of my favorite magic systems, using the power of art in ways both subtle and astonishing.

    the various types of Geekomancy in Mike Underwood’s urban fantasy series is also interesting. One magic system has a lot of possible uses and manifestations, from mainlining a tv show to tearing up a comic book.

  • I’m finishing up California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout, where osteomancers gain power from eating the fossils of powerful creatures, from mammoths to griffins. Yess! Yessss!

  • So many of these books are ones that I haven’t read, but at least they’ve been on my radar for a while. (Or is that not such a good thing; I really should have gotten around to reading some of them by now…)

    I’m always stuck when it comes to finding interesting magic systems in books, not because the majority of the books I read do magic in a very classical sense, but because in my mind, most of it comes down to energy manipulation, only the catalyst or channel differs from world to world. In The Mirror Empire, the power is channeled from celestial bodies. In the Black Jewels books, it’s channeled through Jewels. But it still comes down to energy manipulation at its very core, and so to me, it doesn’t seem much different than someone shooting lightning bolts out of their fingers. Less overdone, definitely, and there’s usually more thought put into how the channel or the catalyst works when you’re using something that isn’t seen as often, but when I look deeper…

    I think that’s some personal bias getting in the way, though, in part because of my religious beliefs and in part because I have one of those minds that finds connections that aren’t actually there half the time. :p

  • Pretty much lots of yep, yep, yep, loved that one, yep, yep as I went through your list. 🙂

    I really liked Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, especially that world as it was in the second book.

    Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels series with its magic ravaged Atlanta is one of my favs. Waves of tech and magic come and go. Sometimes phones, cars & guns work, sometimes people can do magic and giant spiders emerge from your basement.

  • John

    Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. Been decades since I’ve read it, but I seem to recall a magic system based on playing cards?

  • Some great picks here and some I haven’t read that sound fascinating! I”ll have to get that wine one for my husband, he’s very into wine. I agree that Brandon Sanderson has a real flair for unique worldbuilding. His magic is always cool. Have you read The Rithmatist? Magic from chalk drawings, very fun.

    Magic from stars has been done before, but I’ve never heard of magic from “inner spiders”! Will definitely have to check that one out!

  • Angela

    For magic that feels different I really liked Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series. The best example I can think of off the top of my head is when the main character recites the official words from law that apply to needing to buy a ticket to get on the London Underground aka The Tube. He uses that incantation to block his pursuers from following him unless they buy a ticket.

    The only other time I’ve come across anything that felt even close to that style was in the City’s Son. by Tom Pollock.

  • Christine

    Spellwright by Blake Charlton fits right into here! Spells are literally written out in words, and our main character is dyslexic. 🙂

  • matthew

    Dr. Anthony G. Francis, Jr.’s Skindancer series definitely deserves a mention to. Magic shows in this series through mediums like tattoos and graffiti. Of course there are some of the more usual manifestations of magic and magical species as well but the focus remains on the more interesting stuff.

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