A few years ago, I posted an article titled “The Top Ten Coolest Magic Systems in Fantasy” on a now-defunct website called Geekus.net. The topic of favorite/coolest magic system came up at reddit.com/r/fantasy today, and it inspired me to reblog this here. It was by far the site’s most popular post.
Let’s put aside literary integrity, writing quality, and originality for a moment and just focus on the superficial. When it comes to reading fantasy, a cool magic system is often enough to hook a reader despite a cliched story, or save a book filled with one-dimensional characters. Magic is just cool, and sometimes you’ve got to give credit where credit is due, even when a magic system is more creative than the story in which you discover it. With that in mind, here are the top ten coolest magic systems in fantasy, by series title.
10. The Dying Earth Series by Jack Vance
Vance created the Dying Earth subgenre with his eponymous 1950 short story collection. In so doing, he also introduced a memorable (pun intended) system of magic. In the far future world of the Dying Earth, magicians use spells, but only 100 spells remain to human knowledge. These…
I have a veritable library of unfinished short stories in my Dropbox, neatly archived into their own individual folders. Some are ancient: a few hundred words I wrote on the fly late one night, or a writing exercise I saved more because of OCD than any desire to ever do anything with it. Others are more recent, mostly incomplete ideas: vignettes, descriptions of settings, characters without stories. In additional to all of this dead prose, however, I usually have at least a few stories in progress that I’m actively thinking about. One of them is a far future science fiction short story about a sort of first contact attache overseeing the early phases of introducing advanced technology to a planet seeking membership in a galactic confederation.
This one is a true back burner story, in the sense that I’m actively working on it but in a secondary, low-priority way. I’ll literally keep the file open behind whatever my primary project is (in this case the YA novel I just finished and am now editing), and occasionally switch over to it in moments of boredom or inspiration to add a few lines. I never write more than a paragraph or so at a time. I’m interested to see what kind of first draft this produces, and whether it’s a viable way to work on minor projects.
Does anyone else do this? Work on things piecemeal, a few hundred words at a time?
I tend to read a number of books at any given time, mostly because I prefer variety and because I’m often reading non-fiction for research in addition to whatever fiction I might be reading. Or sometimes, if a novel just isn’t holding my interest, I’ll start reading something else while I decide whether or not I want to go back to it. So what have I just finished, what am I reading, and what do I want to read?
The Martian by Andy Weir. For the most part, as good as it’s cracked up to be, though if you’re not into hard science fiction then some of the math and engineering of Mark Watley’s survival on Mars might run a little long for you. That said, Weir manages to take the very precise, grueling, often boring details about what life might be like for an astronaut stranded on Mars and turn them into an engaging fight for survival. The fact that the main character’s a bit of a ham helps a lot as well, as there’s a lot of wry humor to break up the more technical bits.
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. Book Two of the Stormlight Archive. This one’s a doorstop, like all of Sanderson’s books these days, and as much as I enjoyed The Way of Kings I’m finding that this one tends to plod. The problems are plot and pacing. Plot-wise, it’s asking a lot of the reader that all of the main characters are still stuck in the Shattered Plains, with no signs of leaving any time soon (Shallan, in fact, has just shown up, and seems comfortably ensconced). As far as the pacing, I’m about a third of the way through and, although a few important things have happened, there’s a very quotidian feel to the story-telling. The characters feel like they’re going through the motions. Perhaps it’s a matter of motivation: Kaladin lacks the anger and vengeance he relied on in his Bridge Four days in this book, while Shallan’s “I’m learning to be clever and saucy” storyline just feels hackneyed and boring. Mild spoilers (highlight to read): There is a relatively major death that happens early on, but I didn’t feel invested enough in the character to really give a damn. The character most affected by this death also seems to get over it fairly quickly, and ultimately it just hasn’t affected the plot very much so far.
Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. Finally got around to reading this, which I bought during a lull in Words of Radiance, and I’m loving it. Gets you from the start. It deserves its grimdark reputation, and though I’m not that far into it, it’s already managed to one-up Abercrombie in sheer nihilism.
I’m hijacking my own blog to share a book and an author that are very close to my heart with all of you. The Price of Desire by P.J. Fox came out this month from Evil Toad Press. It’s available at Amazon and other major retailers. You can learn more about it below, at http://www.pjfoxwrites.com, or by following P.J. Fox on Twitter. Here’s what I said about it for Evil Toad Press:
The Price of Desire, Book One of The House of Light and Shadow, by P.J. Fox, is available now at Amazon.com and other major online retailers! Click the image to the left to buy it now.
The Price of Desire is military science fiction at its finest. It’s a story of two people–a psychologically damaged Imperial naval commander and the woman he rescues from slavers while en route to an assignment meant to end his career–finding a common fate against a backdrop of galactic imperialism, war, and revolt.
The planet Tarsonis, to which Kisten Mara Sant was dispatched following an ill-advised assault on his uncle, the Imperial Chancellor, on the Senate floor, is a mining world chafing at the bit of imperial rule. As a Prince of the Blood and the scion of a powerful family, Kisten’s sentence was commuted to exile: exile on a distant, troubled…
So I sat down to write this post, thinking that, aside from a few scattered references found in the darker corners of the Internet (such as somebody’s reading list on Goodreads), I had pretty much invented the term “Swordpunk.” Or at least, was the first writer to consciously and self-proclaimedly apply it to any of my work. I was wrong. Fantasy author G. Derek Adams, author of Spell/Sword, beat me to the punch almost two years ago. His inaugural post on the topic is funny, and it rambles a bit, but I think the core point he makes is this:
I think the fear that fantasy writers have is that if they don’t reinvent the wheel, they won’t be taken seriously. Like Tad Williams is going to roll up and revoke their Fantasy License. [I’m imagining him in a lime green golf cart and wearing a jaunty scarf. Are you imagining it that way? Just me? Okay.]
When I have a hero step forth and raise his sword, I don’t want to try to sell you on how he’s different than the inumerable sword-slingers in the genre. I want you to think of them. I want you to think of Sturm Bright-blade, Simon Mooncalf, Logen the Bloody-Nine, Brienne of Tarth, Lancelot, Garet Jax, Neville Longbottom, Reepicheep, Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter and Conan the Barbarian, himself. I want you to think of them all. I want to connect to that resonance, that legacy of character.
I recently finished the first draft of the YA post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel I’ve been working on, and during the break between finishing the draft and doing my first edit, I went back to an earlier project I had started a few years ago. The story started out as nothing more than an entertaining diversion for myself. I was working on my epic fantasy at the time (which is still in progress), which is my attempt to do just what Adams is rebelling against in the article: to reinvent the wheel a bit, to write something that’s different from everything else. It’s a project that’s close to my heart and which I take as seriously as anything I’ve written. Sometimes too seriously. That being said, after getting around 30,000 words into the first book, I needed a break. So I sat down, opened up a new Word document, and started writing.
It was a freewriting exercise, essentially, and I did it according to two arbitrarily imposed rules: (1) I would write a fantasy story that was entirely self-indulgent, i.e., was about what I found cool and nothing else and wasn’t trying to be original; and (2), I would consciously try to avoid editing myself in any way as I wrote. The result was The Akkian Mass, the first chapter of which is available for free on this site.
It was probably the most straight up fun writing I’ve ever done. It taught me a lesson about writing in general, too, one that others had tried to impress upon me but that I only fully learned on my own: you can’t censor yourself, at least on your first draft. You need to put what’s in your head on the page without thinking about how anyone else will respond to it. So I sat there and geeked out, and enjoyed the hell out of it.
Coming back to it recently, I immediately got excited about it again, for similar reasons. Why shouldn’t I just finish this, I asked myself? Turn it into a stand alone sword and sorcery novel and just publish it and see if anyone shares my sick, nerdy glee in the masturbatory quality of it? So that’s my plan, as of now. Since I wrote it, and more so lately, the question of how to market it has been percolating in the back of my mind. The word that kept reappearing was “Swordpunk.”
It’s hard to define cyberpunk and its subgenres explicitly, particularly since they don’t all have a lot in common. To synthesize as best I can, however, in my experience cyberpunk, steampunk, clockpunk, etc., all share two primary things: (1) a focus on some form of technology or magic; and (2), a generally contrarian, “punk” point of view.
Lawrence Person noted this in a now-famous quote: “Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.”
So what, then, is swordpunk? Here’s my definition:
A subgenre of fantasy that combines established tropes of the traditional Sword & Sorcery subgenre and the newly established “grimdark” movement with a self-aware focus on indulging the existing passions of established fantasy fans, particularly in regard to character, action, magic, weaponry, and setting.
In other words, swordpunk is meta as fuck. It’s writing that is going to appeal to readers in two different, but complementary ways: first, to new readers, as indulgent, light story-telling that focuses more on entertaining the reader than on literary merit, and (2), for established fans of the genre, as self-aware quasi-satire that deliberately has fun with the fact that it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel.
Swordpunk is about badass adventurers, powerful wizards, scantily clad people, sick fantasy swords and armor, quippy sidekicks, scary, evil enemies, and profitable dungeon-crawling.
Which is definitively not to say that it should be in any way backwards in terms of gender roles, sexual orientation, etc. The swordpunk I want to write and to read will have as many badass women as men, and the characters won’t care who they’re fucking as long as they’re fucking somebody.
Above all, however, swordpunk should be fun.
What do you think? What would you include in your definition of swordpunk? What does the term mean to you, if anything?