There are books where magic exists simply as an inexplicable force, and then there are books where magic has its own highly detailed laws governing the fictional universe. For me, reading a novel with a well-defined magic system is as satisfying as pondering over a thought experiment or a difficult logic puzzle. It’s also what drew me to Brandon Sanderson’s work, which are full of intricate hard magic systems and characters figuring out how to best use their powers. In his books, magic isn’t some mysterious energy you can tap into to save the day, but an alternate physics or a set of laws that you must creatively negotiate with.
If you’ve ever wondered about how things might work out in an alternate universe or the inconveniences of certain superpowers, then these books with the coolest magic systems should be on your radar.
Mistborn: The Final Empire
My first foray into Sanderson’s work was stumbling upon a heavily discounted copy of The Final Empire at a bookshop. The Final Empire does a lot of interesting things with familiar tropes (such as debunking the Chosen One or the prophesied hero), but the best bit is its unique magic system called “Allomancy” which is based on an innate ability to harness the power of metals. Each metal grants the user (called a “Misting) a specific ability (such as swaying someone’s emotions or improving strength) and a person who can burn all metals is known as a Mistborn.
As the series progresses, we learn more about other intertwined magic systems, such as “Feruchemy” (where the metal is stored to unleash its power rather than ingested) and “Hemalurgy” (the transfer of magical powers from one person to another), even as the planet Scadrial evolves from a medieval wasteland to a more industrialized settlement.
After finishing Mistborn, you can move onto Sanderson’s heavier books set in the same Cosmere universe, such as The Stormlight Archive. And if you’re in the mood for a magic system based on art, try The Rithmatist where geometric patterns of chalk can be used to perform magic.
If you love epic fantasy that’s slow, contemplative and character-driven, you’re sure to love the Farseer books. The series mainly features two interesting forms of magic—the Skill and the Wit. The Skill is based on telepathy, and can be used to manipulate emotions, create illusions and even heal, while the Wit is based on bonding with animals.
The overall narrative is highly influenced by Arthurian motifs and follows Fitz, the bastard son of a prince who is trained as an assassin and coincidentally possesses both kinds of magic.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke’s debut novel is a hefty tome that straddles alternative history and fae lore, in carefully stylized Dickensian language. In other words, it reimagines 19th century England and the Napoleonic Wars with the presence of magic.
But even so, magic has declined in this world and is an arcane branch of study perused by “theoretical magicians” until the arrival of “practical magician" Mr. Norrell. After he helps resurrect a woman from the dead by striking a bargain with a fairy, the government enlists him in their war operations. He also gets an apprentice, Jonathan Strange. Soon, the personal lives of these two men are complicated by fae machinations.
Filled with copious footnotes, the book is a highly detailed exploration of a certain kind of magic and its consequences, along with the idea of what it means to be English.
Book of Night
I greatly enjoyed Holly Black’s take on the Fair Folk in her bestselling Folk of the Air series, and I fell in love with the premise of The Book of Night, her first adult dark fantasy novel.
In this rather appropriately titled book, shadows have immense power. They can be altered for the right price, sent off to do illicit activities, and at times, even take on a life of their own. The novel tells the story of Charlie, a low-level con artist whose life becomes increasingly chaotic when shadows from her past return to torment her.
The Broken Earth Trilogy
The award-winning Broken Earth books by N.K. Jemisin deftly tackle a lot of heavy concepts and is set on a world riddled by earthquakes and the vicissitudes of climate change that has catastrophic consequences on its inhabitants.
Characters usually live in nomadic settlements called “comms” and certain people called “orogenes” have the ability to cause and deflect earthquakes. As such, they are feared and often hunted by others. There are also the “Stone Eaters” (exactly what it sounds like) and the “Guardians,” who are tasked with training and controlling the orogenes.
In other words, having the ability to cause earthquakes might seem pretty cool, but if you live in the fictional continent of Stillness and are not too careful, this superpower can get you killed.
The Mask of Mirrors
If you love dark fantasy as much as me, you must pick up a copy of The Mask of Mirrors, co-written by Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. The story follows the escapades of Ren, a con artist determined to infiltrate one of the noble houses of Nadzera.
Both writers bring their experiences in anthropology, gaming and fiction writing into this exquisite trilogy that boasts of detailed worldbuilding, compelling characters and enticing magic systems. It features three interesting forms of magic, including “pattern reading” (based on tarot cards), “numinatria” (based on astrology and sigils) and “imbuing” (somewhat similar to spell-casting).
The Poppy War
R.F. Kuang’s grimdark military fantasy trilogy utilizes an innovative magic system based on harnessing powers from psychedelic substances and martial arts techniques.
The novel unfolds the story of Rin, a war orphan who is selected to attend an elite magic school. But surviving the rigors of school life as an outsider is the least of her worries as there is another war brewing on the horizon.
The Four Profound Weaves
If you’re in the mood for a lyrical novella with a diverse cast and a magic system based on the art of weaving, you’re sure to love Lemberg’s The Four Profound Weaves set in the author’s Birdverse world.
It tells the story of two elderly trans protagonists—one who wishes to learn a particular kind of ancestral magic from her exiled aunt, while the other struggles with fitting in. Queer, poetic and richly evocative, The Four Profound Weaves makes for a very refreshing read.
The Black Prism
The first book in the author’s Lightbringer series, The Black Prism introduces an interesting magic system called “chromaturgy,” based on harnessing the seven colors of light.
The usual magicians are known as the “drafters,” while the Prism is the person who can utilize magic of every color and even split light, allowing them to use magic more powerfully than the drafters. The book narrates the story of Gavin Guile, an enormously powerful Prism as he faces an uprising and struggles to protect a deadly secret.
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