Posts Tagged ‘magic’

2901955081_8d6f4cb45f_zA good magic system or weird technology can really make a fantasy or steampunk setting. To try to do this better in my future writing, I’ve come up with five points to consider when creating such a system:

My Five Point Magic System Template

  1. Theme: What am I trying to do or express with this magic? Am I after something exciting, horrifying, humorous? Do I want to use it to explore love, art, vengeance, greed or some other issue? Whatever I pick, that will become prominent in any story using this system.
  2. Cost: All magic and technology has to have a cost. If it doesn’t then it becomes a limitless resource that lets users do whatever they want. So what’s the cost? Do users become corrupted? Do they have limited magical reserves they use up? Must they spill blood or dig up ghost rock to power their machines?
  3. Limitations: What can this magic do, and what can’t it do? Being clear on this stops it becoming a deus ex machina that resolves every story situation in unsatisfying fashion. Knowing the limits means you can set them up early in your story.
  4. Who can do it? Usually, only a select group of people can access the magic of a setting. So who are these people? Is it everyone who trained at the University of Making Things Go Bang? Is it all ginger people? Do you have to be blessed by the Empress to have magical power?
  5. Rules: Points 2-4 are the most important rules for a magic system, but there will be others. Circumstances in which it does and doesn’t work. Taboos around its use. How it looks when it happens. Knowing the rules gives you limitations to explore, boundaries to encourage creativity, and are what separate a system from just hand waving away your characters’ problems.

How About You?

Can you think of other things I should consider when creating magic and technology systems for fiction? Do you have your own list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Powerful.

If I was going to choose one word to describe The Wandering Fire, the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, ‘powerful’ is the word I would choose, not just for its style but for its story. It’s a power that lifts a good series into one that’s truly great.

Part Two: Better and Darker

The Wandering Fire picks up some months after The Summer Tree left off. The characters introduced in that book are once more transported from modern Canada to the magical world of Fionavar, where in true legendary style they are called upon to fight the forces of darkness.

At first glance, this book seems much like the first, taking a very Tolkien morality and mythological story-telling, and cranking it up with Kay’s excellent writing. But it feels like, having set up the series, Kay is now free to use his full literary prowess in expanding upon it. The big moments feel even more epic, the intimate ones more personal, the menace even more substantial.

The Revelation of the Overwhelming

Overwhelming power is a major theme of this story, and one that gives it much of its drama.

On the one hand there is the overwhelming threat of Rakoth Maugrim, and of the apparent inevitability of his triumph. By alluding in advance to events to come, as well as shifting the story around chronologically, Kay creates a sense of creeping inevitable disaster, much like the atmosphere of a horror film. Defeat feels almost unavoidable, both in the broad scheme and in individual battles.

But characters are also overwhelmed in a more positive way, through religious experiences. Incidents such as an encounter between Dave and the goddess Ceinwen have a real sense of awe and grandeur to them. The gods are present and yet not reduced to mere people. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and moving to read. This is religious experience at its most emotional.

The Intimate

This isn’t to say that Kay’s book is all about epic grandeur. It’s also rooted in more ordinary but no less wonderful relationships, which he uses to explore all kinds of emotional bonds. There are siblings; romances; parent-child pairings; leaders and followers; blood brothers bound together by combat; a man and his dog; gods and worshippers; mages and the extraordinary people from whom they draw their power. This last pairing, a creation of Kay’s world, helps to draw attention to the others and bring out this theme of the story.

I enjoyed The Summer Tree, but was not enjoying The Fionavar Tapestry as much as Kay’s later work. The Wandering Fire has turned this series into something extraordinary, and I look forward to the final book.

Past a certain point, my praise for the stories of the late great Terry Pratchett becomes pleasingly repetitive. Humour, humanism, quirky invention and offbeat observations – it’s there in everything from my best loved Pratchett to more recent works that haven’t grabbed me so much. So of course Wyrd Sisters, the sixth Discworld book, is a fabulous read. I loved it just as much re-reading it after his death as I did on first encountering it as a teenager. If you haven’t read it then you should – it’s as good a starting point for Discworld as any, and a fantastic work of fantasy.

All of which got me thinking – why does Wyrd Sisters stand out in the Pratchett mix?

A Favourite Among Favourites

Wyrd Sisters isn’t in my top three Discworld picks (Guards! Guards!, Pyramids and Small Gods, in case anyone cares). But it’s clearly among other people’s. When the Sword and Laser book club were voting on a Discworld book to read, this one came out on top. When someone put on a Discworld play while I was at university, they chose Wyrd Sisters, as well as choosing me for the role of diverse guards and other extras (for the record, I was a terrible actor, and it’s a mercy that I let that ambition go).

Wyrd Sisters is a great book, but so are most of the Discworld novels, so why does this one keep emerging from the pack?

Hitting His Stride

I think one of the answers is that this is about the point where Pratchett really got into the swing of Discworld. Many put that point a book or two earlier, which places this firmly in the comfort zone. That makes it memorable for those who read his books they were released, or who have read them in publication order.

Then there’s the Shakespeare references, and Pratchett riffing on the power of stories. It’s a theme he returned to from time to time, but here he combines it with spoofing The Bard, that bulwark of the English literary canon. Whether you loath or idolise Shakespeare, that probably creates extra associations.

More than anything though, I think it’s the witches. This wasn’t Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, but it saw her team up with Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In a move that still remains shockingly unusual in fantasy literature, the book is led not just by a woman but by a group of women, all of them lovable and admirable in their own ways, all very distinctive both from each other and from familiar fantasy tropes. These aren’t a bunch of sexy arse-kicking heroines, but they’re still fascinating people and a hell of a lot of fun to read about. They feel like real people, with all their quirks, strengths and failings, albeit people who cast spells and ride flying brooms.

I expect that Pratchett will be loved for years to come, and I expect that Wyrd Sisters will be too. So if you haven’t read it, please do. And if you have, let me know what you think – is this one of the man’s greats, and what about it stands out for you?

I like a deep, solid book. The twisted literary architecture of Gormenghast. The brief, stunning beauty of The Great Gatsby. But sometimes I want something pacey and enjoyable, something that provides the sort of accessible action long associated with pulp fiction. And that’s what drew me into the second of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, Fool Moon.

Urban Fantasy Chicago Style

Fool Moon is a product of a very modern genre – urban fantasy. The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a wizard for hire in modern Chicago, balancing his struggling finances with his noble instincts through work for the police force. When a series of brutal murders show every sign of being committed by werewolves, Dresden becomes part of the investigation. Soon there are monsters, gangsters and even the police on his tale, and all he has to save him is a gun, a magic amulet and his trusty posing coat.

OK, he doesn’t call it a posing coat, but we all know that’s what long coats are for. Sherlock doesn’t have his because it’s practical, he has it because it looks damn cool.

I haven’t read much urban fantasy, but to me Butcher seems to do a good job of combining the elements of modern life and fantasy adventure. The workings of the police, criminals and local politics aren’t just background, they’re integral to the plot. The monsters and magic aren’t just added colour for a detective story, they’re also central. Together, these make a fascinating mix.

The Unchanging Adventurer

Fool Moon also dips into an older literary tradition – that of the pulp serials, escapist fiction in which action is prioritised over character progress.

I wrote a while back about how you might structure such a serial, and it’s reassuring to find that Butcher, one of the most successful writers in this style, uses many of those tricks. The illusion of progress is created by setting Harry Dresden back at the start of the story, so that when things come good at the end it seems like a step forward, even though he’s essentially where he was at the start of the last book. There’s a romance that similarly jumps through positive and negative hoops before ending up back where it was. There’s an ongoing villain in the form of gangster Johnny Marconi, as well as immediate menaces who appear and are dealt with within this one book.

Harry Dresden’s life doesn’t need to change for his adventures to be entertaining. Which is a good thing, because Dresden as a character seems as resistant to change as his world. Butcher has done a great job of creating a character whose looping life makes sense.

All the Clichés!

Lets be clear – none of the elements in this book are terribly original in and of themselves. From the noire-style succession of hot ladies in Harry’s life, to the gangster the law can’t touch, to the eventual solution hung in pride of place like Chekhov’s Gun at the start of the story.

To me, this isn’t a story with a deep message or something new to say. But it’s a lot of fun, and worth it for that.

Bonus points go to the audiobook of it I listened to, which had James Marsters doing the reading. He suits the story very well, and mercifully doesn’t have to revive his British accent from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Menelaeus’s fingers were sore from picking cotton, his back stinging from Mr Stenson’s lash. But he wasn’t going to let that stop him. With one hand he clutched his totem, intertwined figures of man and woman, diviner and spirit. With the other he picked up a handful of corn and scattered it across the skin of the drum.

“What do you see?” Octavia’s expression was serious, making her face appear even more wrinkled in the oil lamp’s light. He had learned much from her wisdom, her strength and her grace, but had still more to learn. With her man’s clothes and her fierce resolve, she embodied the world in between, the place where boundaries fell, where humans and spirits met. She was, in so many ways, the person he wanted to be.

Most of the kernels had bounced away to the floor. He looked carefully at the positions of those that remained, where they lay on a grid that served as both game board and tool of their art. The signs were all too familiar.

“This is Stenson.” Menelaeus pointed at a dark, twisted symbol marked by the corn. “Tomorrow we will suffer his wrath.” He pointed to the signs for suffering and for the field hands, both singled out by his spirit twin through the grain. Another symbol had been marked, one that filled him with even more dread. “There will be a death.”

“Again.” Octavia nodded. “Now tell me anything we can use to lessen the harm.”

#

“Keep back, boy.” Blood dripped from Stenson’s whip. At his feet, Octavia Brown lay dead beside the cotton buds she had dropped in the dirt – ruined, as Stenson put it.

At least Octavia’s son Saul was not here. His fury would have got him killed. Thanks to Menelaeus and Octavia, the Brown children would not be orphans.

That knowledge did nothing to still Menelaeus’s pounding heart. He wanted to rip out Stenson’s throat with his bare hands. But Stenson and his men had guns, and Menelaeus would not be the only one they would punish.

So he stood still and silent. But now he knew – divining the future was not enough. He had to shape it.

#

In the stillness of the night, Menelaeus stared at the totem, two carved beings intertwined. He could still feel his spirit twin, but without Octavia he was weaker, and he needed to be stronger than he ever had. He was just a man, and that was not enough.

“Stenson comin’ for you.” Saul stood beside Menelaeus’s bed. “Says you been stirrin’ trouble. You want I should kill him?”

His voice was ragged, torn up by hate.

“No.” Menelaeus rose from the bed. “Ain’t no-one else gonna fight for me. But I’m gonna need some things of your momma’s.”

#

“Who the hell d’you think you are, boy?” Stenson’s voice was even more menacing coming from the darkness behind the lanterns. His men cackled at his words. “Goddam faggot as well as a nigger now, huh?”

“My name is Meredith.” It felt natural, not just the name but the dress and the shawl. Becoming more than just the man he had been. Becoming both parts of the divination.

As the person who had been Menelaeus placed the corn kernels on the drum, she could feel the power flowing through her, her spirit twin stronger for sharing her change, for breaking a line that defined and divided him.

“Always knew you were an uppity nigger.” Stenson’s gun clicked. “Now we gonna end that.”

“No.” Meredith slid a kernel across the drum skin, from the sign for the overseer to that for death.

A shot rang out.

“Oh shit!” A different voice this time. White, male, scared.

“What the hell you done, Hank?” The lights shifted, illuminating Stenson’s body and casting Meredith back into shadow.

“I don’t know,” the man whimpered. “It just gone off in my hand. I don’t…”

As fear turned to panic and accusation, Meredith picked up her drum. The plantation men would be busy for a good long while.

As she walked away into the night she touched the totem hanging around her neck and remembered Octavia. She felt torn by loss, and yet, more than ever, she felt whole.

Lies banner 2

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This is the latest in a series of stories set in a weird western setting, where magic is (for the most part) achieved through games. I think this one may have given me more insight into how that works. If you enjoyed this then you might also like the previous stories, Straight Poker and Counting Coup. And you can read my other weird western work in my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which is free if you sign up to my mailing list.

This particular story comes about thanks to Ben Moxon, who came up with the idea for connecting games and divination through a decorated drum. He also led me to this fascinating article on divination, around which Menelaeus/Meredith is built.

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Picture by takomabibelot via Flickr Creative Commons

Ju-long crouched behind a pile of rails, arrows hissing past his head. Of all the Central Pacific Railroad workers, he was the only one who had known that the attack was coming, who had prepared a place of shelter.

But then, he was the only one who must enter the fight unarmed.

Behind him, the white workers had pulled out guns or run for horses. There were no other Chinese here today, their safety secured by the Cabal, along with the feathered coup stick clutched tight in Ju-long’s hand.

Tension knotted his guts as he peered at the Indian braves. They stalked through the mounds of dirt and heaps of wooden sleepers, most with weapons raised, some carrying torches and axes to destroy the railway workings. The shaman was near the back, directing them with his own coup stick.

It was a good thing for Ju-long that he had a plan.

He waited for a moment when he was not observed, then crept forward to the next stack of rails, and then a mound of dirt beyond that, as careful and precise as if her were setting Go pieces on the board. Every moment was planned, each step bringing him closer to controlling his opponent.

If only he could have used the magic of the Go stones. But the Cabal understood that, in the battle for America, one must learn to win the enemy’s games.

A group of white men charged out of a ditch, wielding picks and shovels. Ju-long dived beneath a wagon as a brutal melee erupted around him. The Indian braves easily cut down their attackers, men Ju-long had worked with, talked with, shared tea with. He saw Olaf Gunderson fall, blood streaming from his neck. Brin Rourke stiffened as the shaman hit him with his coup stick, then turned at the shaman’s command and started attacking his friends.

Fearing for his own life, Ju-long shrank into the shadows beneath the cart, even as he felt the sadness of Olaf’s loss. He had been a good man.

Now the whole construction site was a surging mass of bodies, the smells of blood and smoke filling the air. Men fought with reckless bravery, the sheer chaos of their struggle ruining Ju-long’s plan. There could be no careful advance now, no creeping from cover to cover.

He looked at the coup stick. Of course he could not win by calculation. Counting coup was not that sort of game.

It was a game of braves.

Across the workings, the shaman was advancing toward the men defending a locomotive. He was guarded not just by braves but by three white men who moved with lurching obedience, their souls under his thrall.

Taking a deep breath, Ju-long scrambled from beneath the wagon, and he ran.

Bullets whistled past him, the rifle-wielding whites mistaking him for another brave. The Indians lashed out at him with axes and spears, seeing a stranger in their midst. Something hit him and his legs went weak with pain, but he kept running even as blood ran hot down his side. There was more at stake here than him. He was just one piece on the game board.

His strength was fading, his body threatening to give in on him. With a last surge of will he summoned the spirit of the game, channelling a strength and daring he had never known before. It was exhilarating. He felt so alive.

The shaman turned, looking in confusion at Ju-long. But he was too late.

Ju-long ducked beneath an attack and leapt, touching the shaman with his stick. As he rolled in the dirt he saw the shaman stiffen, an angry fire battling with the coup magic clouding his eyes.

“You have me, brave.” He looked at Ju-long. “What is your will?”

“Your men will not attack me.” Ju-long clutched his side. He felt weak, too weak for a long battle of wills.

“Of course.” The shaman held up his hands and the Indians backed off, not just from Ju-long but from the relieved looking white men. “The attack is over.”

“No.” Ju-long shook his head. He had lived and worked with those men, but European power was still the enemy, expanding like a blight across the continent. The Cabal had their own plans for this land. “I am here to offer alliance. Kill them, and then we will talk.”

The shaman raised his coup stick, the fire gleaming more brightly in his eyes.

“Gladly,” he said.

With a series of war whoops, the fighting began again.

* * *

This story was inspired by Joel Zawada, who wanted to see more of the world of my previous story ‘Straight Poker‘. I refined the idea through a couple of Writing Excuses exercises. Thanks to Ben, Cas, Brittany and Liza for helping me develop my thinking and pick Ju-long as the protagonist. You folks pushed me to take this in an interesting direction, and I expect I’ll be back to this world again before too long.

If you’d like to receive these stories direct to your inbox every Friday, please sign up for my mailing list. You’ll also receive a free copy of Riding the Mainspring, my steampunk anthology, which includes two more weird west stories, ‘The Cast Iron Kid’ and ‘The Horse Whose Hooves Cried Thunder’.

And as always, if you have an idea for one of my future flash Friday stories, or are writing Flash Friday stories yourself and would like my readers to see them, then leave a comment.

IMG_0780[1]Some folks thought the devil’s card hands were all about spades, full of death and darkness. Others that he chose hearts for men’s passions. But Rick had seen enough of the cabalist tables in New York to know better.

That was why Rick had come out west, to get away from the magic before his soul wore through. To play some straight poker – no weaving of power, no double layered games, just good hard bluffing and good cold cash.

It was getting on for midnight in a two shack town when he realised that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the wind whistling in through the door of the rickety saloon, or the candlelight flickering in the cheap gilt-frame mirrors.

It was the old lady’s play, sticking on a weak pair. That pair was fours, a match for the players around the table, revealed with the diamond on top – man’s greed and payment to the Beast. She played it cool, her other hand patting at her tight grey bun.

Too cool. Poker face even as she lost the pot. They’d all stuck, bound themselves to the game while their guard was down. Rick fought to keep his breathing steady even as his heart hammered. This here was some nasty goings on.

He played it safe for the next few hands, waiting for her to make her move. He didn’t like to be the dove at the table, but the stakes had just rocketed.

Not that the others realised. It was the Apache who went all in, giving his best dead-eyed killer look as he pushed forward a big heap of pennies.

The Indian’s face fell as the old lady’s full house beat his flush. His eyes went blank and he flopped back in his seat.

The old lady ran a finger along her cards. Clubs high, warrior’s cards, tapping into the brave’s soul and snatching it away. A glimmer of power flickered at the corner of her eye.

Rick’s blood ran cold. Not just horror at seeing another man’s spirit stolen but terror at the thought that it could be him next.

The black fellow, a railroad worker out of DC, tried to leap up and away. But his chair was stuck to the ground, and he was trapped just as surely in it. Fear filled his face.

Rick threw his blind penny out onto the table, nodded to the railroad man to do the same.

‘Just play to win,’ he said.

But the real game would be down to him, whatever became of the pot. Rick’s soul might be tarnished but he sure wasn’t willing to give it up easy.

A few more hands went around, the old lady’s eyes flickering with hellfire while Rick’s pile of pennies slowly seeped away. He had to find a way out before his pot ran empty and the witch had him trapped, able neither to win nor to leave. He’d seen zombies made that way, down in the Big Easy, men without a will of their own. Men blank-eyed as the Indian, feeling what was done to them but unable to prevent it. Better death than that.

But there was no way out, not without a good hand or knowing how bad hers was. He tried to buy his way out magically by sticking on two pairs, diamonds in both, but she countered with the three incorruptible men – club, heart and spade of jacks. No good playing diamonds against that.

Soon he had cash for just a few rounds. He watched Titus, the railroad man, blow his last chance on a straight. It might have freed him if the top card had been a diamond, but that nine of spades went down to the old lady’s club flush, and she scooped up his cash along with his soul.

The power in her eyes flared even as Titus went cold. No hiding it now.

Rick dealt, watching the cards fall on the table. He had the queen and ace of clubs, and matching spades in the hole. If he went all in on those pairs it might just about break the spell. But she had two kings on the table, and the ace of hearts besides. With a diamond to match either, she’d take his very soul.

Her eyes stayed steady as she looked at her cards, showing only an ember of their earlier glow. She was giving nothing away.

Then it struck him. Maybe, just maybe, there was no power in her eyes ‘cause her hand held no power. Because right now her magic was weak.

Maybe this was his chance.

It was a slim thing to gamble his soul on. Was he judging her right, or had he lost his touch out here in the west?

He hesitated for a moment, but what choice did he have? He slid his whole pot across the table.

‘All in,’ he declared.

‘You sure?’ she asked.

‘I’m sure.’

She matched his bid and revealed her cards.

No king, no ace, no fire in her eyes.

Rick laid out his two pairs, pushed out what power he had, and the spell broke.

The Indian looked at the table in confusion. Titus bolted from his seat and straight out the door.

Rick gave a sigh of relief. He felt drained, like without the tension he had nothing left.

The old lady shook her head, pushed the pot across to Rick.

‘I’m heading west tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Care to join me? We could make quite a mark, my power and your smarts.’

Rick looked from his winnings to the dazed Indian, then back at her. It had felt good to play that way again. The game behind the game, gambling for life or death.

Other people’s lives. Other people’s deaths.

‘No ma’am,’ he said, scooping up his winnings. ‘Straight poker’s good enough for me.’

 

*

Doing the Writing Excuses exercise earlier this week, I developed an idea about magic using playing cards. It’s not the first time I’ve played with that theme, so it seemed like a good time to whip this story out.

Plus I’ve just started playing weird western card game Doomtown, so I’m all about the wild west this week.

If you enjoyed this then you might also like my other free to read Flash Friday stories, my fantasy collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, or even my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which contains a couple of western flavoured stories.

I’m currently working on a fantasy/scifi idea suggested by Glenatron, but if anybody else has an idea for something they’d like to see me include in a Flash Friday story then let me know – I’m always open to ideas.