I just finished reading the fantasy novel, The Crimson League, by Victoria Grefer. The book was about sorcery and those who deal in it, and presented magic in a way unlike most other fantasy tales I’ve read or fantasy role playing games I’ve played.
In The Crimson League, magic is powered by Lin, for which not a lot is explained, but that’s beside the point. There’s a power source, and it has a name, something other than manna or The Force or kremm. To tap into this power source, one must have inherited the talent to do so, a status to which not everyone in the world qualifies. If you have the talent, then you must focus your mind and speak the correct word or short phrase. If you don’t focus correctly, the casting may produce an effect not quite what you want. With practice, you can learn how to focus correctly without as much effort. If you don’t speak the magic words correctly, the spell doesn’t take effect. If a magical word is supposed to end with an e and you say it with an a, it isn’t going to work, even though the untrained ear might not be able to tell the difference.
In Herezoth, the land in which unfurl the events of The Crimson League, learning a spell can be done by simply hearing another sorcerer cast it. Fortunately, you don’t have to shout it, or even speak it in a normal voice; if you don’t want your enemies learning your spells, you learn to whisper them when you cast them. But in the heat of battle, it might not be that easy to remember to whisper. And if someone has the ability to read your thoughts, they can learn your spells that way. It gives a whole new twist to using and learning magic.
Take all of the above and put it together with the fact that a sorcerer can fire off spells as fast as they can be spoken, and you can see that sorcerers in Herezoth are damn powerful. It’s no wonder the general population is highly prejudiced against all sorcerers. An experienced sorcerer could take out a band of sword-wielding warriors in a matter of seconds, without a single warrior having the time to swing a sword.
I think every other system of magic I’ve read about, whether in fiction or in role playing game rules, is more constrained than Grefer’s. In one popular system, the sorcerer must memorize the spells that can be cast that day, hanging them as it were on a spell rack from which the sorcerer may choose until the spells on the rack have been expended or the next day arrives. Most of these spells can be cast fairly quickly, but there are a limited number of each spell that may be cast per day, according to how the sorcerer chose them when the day began. Still, it is unlikely a sorcerer can cast multiple spells before any warriors in the area would have time to launch a physical attack on the sorcerer.
In the magic system of the role playing game Tunnels and Trolls, sorcerers don’t have to memorize spells beforehand, but is limited by the amount of kremm the sorcerer can manipulate at any given time, with more powerful spells requiring more amounts of kremm. After a spell is cast, the sorcerer must wait two full minutes before casting another one, presumably because the casting has temporarily disconnected the sorcerer from an immediately available source of kremm.
Yet other magic systems require lengthy rituals to invoke magic. These rituals might take hours or even days to complete, may require multiple participants, and may require items or lives to be consumed or sacrificed. They are more easily interrupted if you can find and reach the location of the ritual, but the effects of successfully cast ritualistic magic are typically extensive, causing or solving problems for vast numbers of people in one casting.
In fantasy fiction, it is typical for magic systems to be constrained for dramatic effect, especially if the protagonist is one who works magic. If sorcerers are magnitudes more powerful than warriors, a tale with a sorcerer protagonist fighting warriors becomes too predictable and boring, since it is expected that the sorcerer will handily defeat the warriors without problem.
Stories abound with a warrior protagonist and an extremely powerful sorcerer antagonist. These stories work because the warrior will be a sympathetic underdog character, but the problem here is to make it believable when the lesser warrior character defeats the all-powerful sorcerer. It’s just easier to tell this sort of tale if magic is constrained in some way, so the warrior character can figure out how to take advantage of the constraints to defeat the sorcerer.
In a tale with a sorcerer protagonist, such as The Crimson League, where users of magic are so much more powerful than warriors, the antagonist pretty much has to be an even more powerful sorcerer. This can make for an entertaining read, as Victoria Grefer proves with her tale. But the direct combat encounters between the protagonist and the antagonist can’t be too numerous—if the antagonist is that much more powerful than the protagonist, then the antagonist should handily defeat the protagonist after only an encounter or two.
My point in all this is that it depends on the kind of story you want to tell as to how constrained you should make your magic system, whether in fiction or a role playing game. In The Crimson League, combat encounters involving sorcery are deadly. To maintain the suspension of disbelief, characters of which the readers/players may have grown quite fond must become casualties. If the author/GM must kill off numerous characters, there will need to be a lot of characters around to start with, or more will have to be introduced as the story progresses. It’s not always easy for the author to manage a large stable of characters or for the reader to keep them all apart. If characters are continually introduced into the story just to be killed off, it becomes difficult for the reader to identify with or care about any of these characters.
If your tale concerns a sorcerer protagonist with few or no companions, you need some clear constraints on your magic system, so it will be believable when your protagonist is able to avoid being immediately incinerated by the more powerful antagonist, and so your protagonist isn’t expected to be able to automatically pulverize warrior foes.
But if you can pull off a tale of high-powered, low-constrained magic involving a sorcerer protagonist, a more powerful sorcerer antagonist, and lots of supporting characters ready to become casualties, and you can do it without making all the characters two-dimensional cutouts, then I applaud you, as I applaud Victoria Grefer with The Crimson League. If you like fantasy fiction and you’ve not read her book, I highly recommend you do.
I’m a sucker for fantasy novels with sorcerers and sorceresses as POV characters. In The Crimson League, the POV character is the sorceress Kora, but because of magic we are made privy to what is happening with other characters, including some that are miles away from Kora, without losing Kora as the POV character. This is genius on the part of the author.
When I read how magic works in the world of this novel, I wondered if the author would be able to pull it off in a manner that would allow for the continued suspension of disbelief. Those who practice magic can cast spells as quickly as they can speak the words, if they are able to focus properly. Spouting off three spells in immediate succession, within a matter of seconds, is possible in this world. That makes for quite a different story from one in which spells require rituals or material components or at least a minute or two of focusing, gesturing, and chanting. It’s not easy to interrupt the casting of a spell. About all you can do to defend yourself is put up a shield in the split second before the spell effect strikes you. So you can imagine that conflicts involving magic are deadly, and the author does not hold back in this regard. Characters that I cared about were slain, some within view of the POV character and others not, and so the reader is made privy to the details of some of these deaths and not others.
In a review of The Crimson League that I read elsewhere, a reviewer didn’t like the character of Menikas. I did. Menikas always tried to do what was right, and not just for himself. He saved Kora’s life, but she didn’t appreciate it and refused to make peace with him. I’m confident that if I had been in the same situation, I’d have done the same thing Menikas did. Because of the way magic worked in the world, with it being so easy to fire off a spell with but a word, and in a situation where Kora would have been outmatched by enemies who had magic, she would more than likely have been killed if she had tried to do what she wanted, which Menikas stopped her from doing. She blamed him for what happened after that to some of her friends, but realistically if she had intervened when she wanted she would have been unable to prevent the outcome anyway.
The situation with Menikas, a “good” character who acted in a manner he thought honorable and which another “good” character thought was deplorable, is just one example of the complex natures of the characters in this novel. Even the antagonist in this novel has some redeemable qualities, including the ability to love someone other than himself.
I never have time to read a book of this length through from beginning to end without putting it down multiple times, so I appreciated the breaks where I could put the book down. But I must also add that I could not put the book down once I had read 70% of it. I had to finish it then, and stayed up way too late, until the wee hours of the next morning, so I could finish without putting it down. I wanted to put it down and get some sleep, but I always found myself starting the next chapter just to see how things were going, and then I had to finish the chapter.
This is not epic, save-the-world fantasy fiction, and it’s not urban fantasy, but it has elements of both. There’s a touch of romance, some underground crawls and above-ground treks and a lot of hiding out in cities, an ample supply of adventure and misadventure, sword and sorcery conflicts, trolls, and complex characters. It’s my kind of fantasy tale.
So, yes, I loved the book. I’ll be reading the other books in the trilogy. I was able to obtain this book as a free download, but I’ll pay for the next two, because I want to support this author. I’ll publish some of my own fantasy novels some day, and hope they are on par with The Crimson League.