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E4 | Books | Experiencing the Magic of Fantasy

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Today we are discussing one of our favorite topics - the Magic of Fantasy! Specifically, the systems employed to inject whimsy and wonder in to a story to generate interest and connection for the reader. Our conversation will walk through the Hard and Soft Magic systems, describing the characteristics and benefits of both and leading to some recommendations to expand your library. But first, here is a recommendation to expand your flights!


What's on our Flight:

  • Dalton’s drinking: Suntory Whiskey Toki. This is uncharted territory! Very excited to try this famous whiskey from the distilleries of a nation new to our pallet.

  • Nelson’s drinking: BrewDog’s Elvis Juice. This is either a grapefruit infused IPA or an IPA infused grapefruit juice, we’re still not sure which is correct.


What's on our Mind:

Dalton (getting greedy) finished 2 books recently:

  • The Broken Eye (Lightbringer Series book 3) by Brent Weeks. You will hear a lot more about this series later in the episode (and probably in future ones). This is an epic fantasy series and an excellent example of hard magic systems!

  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. A great example of soft magic! This fantasy novel is hard to talk about without spoiling, but one cool point about it is that Gaiman wrote the book without major outlining, giving the story a wandering, whimsical feel. This is book written by a true story teller.

Nelson (greedy as well) is working his way through a movie series and a book as well:

  • Watching through the Star Wars universe (again). This is quite the undertaking, but perfect for cold, wintery days.

  • The Blinding Knife (Lightbringer Series book 2) by Brent Weeks. Nelson’s background is in optical engineering, so this is a magic system tailor made for him! Magic users in this universe absorb different colors (wavelengths) of light as magic and use that magic to create physical objects. There is just enough science in this system to really appeal to nerds like us.


The icebreaker question for this episode was posed by Nelson:

What SciFi or fantasy character would you like to see dropped in to a different SciFi or fantasy universe?

  • Dalton: Sevro from Red Rising rampaging through the Pendragon universe. Sevro is one of my all-time favorite characters. He’s entertaining, loyal, and entirely capable of destroying the status quo of any situation. I’d love to see him dropped in to the Pendragon series, which is a 10 book series centered around Bobby Pendragon, a Traveler who visits different worlds to guide them through their “Turning Point” towards their best future. I would love to see Sevro thrown in to that mix of varying cultures and peoples and enjoy the trouble he brings.

  • Nelson: Bean from Ender’s Game, dropped in to The Lord of the Rings. Bean is a boy genius, a master of both strategy and tactics in the SciFi setting of Ender’s Game. He commands armies from childhood and is a force to be reckoned with. It would be fascinating to watch his intellect applied to the technologies and magics of The Lord of the Rings story. The relationships between Bean and the major characters, especially the leaders and the hobbits, would be thoroughly entertaining as well!


Today’s topic is Magic Systems, and we are so excited to talk about this one! We have done our best to remain spoiler-free in this episode, despite how tempting it is to talk details about these books as we discuss the application of magic within them. However, some of you have read the series we are discussing and can expose yourself to spoilers! So, if you are ready to hear spoiler discussions on the following magic systems, we have moved the discussions to the end of the episode, feel free to jump to those sections as you listen:

  • Ender's Game - 1:00:46

  • The Demon Cycle - 1:01:35

We, being the dedicated nerds that we are, generally inject fantasy into everyday conversations whenever we can. In doing that, we’ve noticed a trend where readers will shy away from magic-heavy books, and even the entire fantasy genre, for feeling that magic is boring and played out. Magic can feel like a cop-out, like a crutch to fix writing snags, like it removes the reader’s investment in the problems the characters are facing. Initially, we felt very similarly! However, our journey through fantasy novels brought us to Brandon Sanderson.

Sanderson developed (or, at least, put a name to) the concept of Hard and Soft Magic. In fact, he has released 3 concise articles on his “Rules for Magic Systems” which expound on this topic. We reference these articles throughout this episode and highly recommend checking them out:

So, let’s dive in to the spectrum of Hard to Soft magic and give some examples of good reads for you to check out!


Hard Magic

In Hard Magic systems, the reader understands the rules and constraints of the magic system and is able to extrapolate those rules to predict applications of the magic systems. This allows the reader to become involve in solving the problems that the characters face and helps generate buy-in for the reader with the story. When a character solves a problem using magic, the reader enjoys that moment with the character because the success was earned despite the constraints of the system.

Hard Magic systems must be explained as the story develops. This is often done through mechanisms such as a tutor or a school so that the reader can learn the system alongside the characters. This system allows the author to develop worlds, cultures, and governments around magic so that it becomes an integral part of the story. Here are some of our favorite Hard Magic systems that we discussed in the episode:

  • Avatar the Last Airbender (TV Series)

  • Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks

  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

  • Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson*

  • Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

  • Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson

  • The Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan

  • Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

  • Full Metal Alchemist (TV Series)

Soft Magic

At the other end of the spectrum, Soft Magic is used to impart a sense of mysticism and wonder to the reader. It creates a connection with the character when the reader experiences awe and wonderment during the story in the same moments that the characters do. Think of stories such as The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Chronicles of Narnia. In each, the main character(s) experience a new and confusing world. They feel fear and wonderment as they are taken from their homes and thrust into fantastical and dangerous new place. Soft Magic systems help authors impart those same feelings to the reader as the system and workings of the new world are also unknown to the reader. Some of our favorite and most dear stories employ Soft Magic systems for the deep connection it fosters for the reader with the character on the hero's journey.

Soft Magic is often not the focus of the story. In fact, many times the magic could be entirely removed from the story. However, while the world would still exist and make sense, often the story would never have happened without the magic system. Again, think of The Lord of the Rings. Without Sauron and his magic rings, our dear hobbits would never leave Hobbiton! Alternatively, the story could still occur, but would lose the flavor and connection provided through the empathy of the reader with the wonder and uncertainty of the unknown.

  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

  • Star Wars (Movies)

  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

  • Dune by Frank Herbert

  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons

  • Stranger Things (TV Series)

  • 11/22/63 by Stephen King

  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman*

  • Gentlemen Bastards by Scott Lynch

Hybrid Systems

As we said, magic systems exist on a spectrum from Hard to Soft. So it makes sense that there is a middle ground between those two extremes. As it turns out, that middle ground is very well explored! Hybrid systems appeal to the analytical, problem-solving minds of the reader through Hard Magic while maintaining the ability to generate connection through wonder and awe with Soft Magic. Choosing a Hybrid Magic system also allows an author to treat magic as Soft initially, generating buy-in and connection, then explain the rules and use the magic to drive plot as the story matures.

Hybrid Magic systems allow the author to generate new tools for the characters to utilize throughout the story, but the use of those tools must always be consistent. A well-known example of this is Harry Potter, where the reader does not know the extent of all spells, but each spell has a consistent use once shown ("Expelliarmus" should do the same thing every time it is used).

  • Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

  • The Legend of Korra (TV Series)

  • The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett

  • The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss*

*Top Recommendations


We hope that this discussion has given you some clarity in to how you experience, enjoy, and connect with magic systems. If you're looking to try a book from one of these categories, we marked our top recommendation for each system above with an asterisk. Conversely, if you have a recommendation for a book or series that utilizes one of these systems we would love for you to leave a comment so we can check it out! Thanks for listening, enjoy the magic. Cheers!

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