One of the fairly basic fundamentals of fantasy is that at some point, somewhere, there enters a little bit of magic. It might only be a little, or it might be a whole lot. Maybe there exist fire-breathing dragons. Maybe some lucky people get to return after death. Maybe dead people’s bodies don’t stop walking around. Or maybe it’s possible to blow up the entire universe by mumbling the right combination of fake Latin. (Still not sold on that concept, although I would never stop messing with it if I could do it. The laws of physics will bow before me!)
But the trouble with magic is that sooner or later, it needs rules. Without knowing how the system works, it’s impossible to quantify what will work and what won’t. If a wizard can summon a dragon made entirely of ice once without negative effects, why can’t they then do the same thing in another situation where an ice dragon would be useful? If they can do anything under the sun, what would stop the entire plot from being resolved in a single sentence: “And then, the wizard did it.”? Magic without rules obeys only the law of narrative convenience, and in the end, it’s really quite unsatisfying.
All of this, then, results in magic with rules. Magic with limits. Magic with fascinating little implications for everyday life, and the further and deeper you go, the more it becomes a part of the universe. Given something with rules, however opaque, people will set themselves to understanding it: it’s what humans do. You’ll start to get machines that work on magic, social rules codified around its use, theories of the universe that simply incorporate it as a natural law.
In the end, in the high-tech limit, the ‘magic’ simply becomes part of the fundamental workings of the universe. It can’t not. If there’s something more fundamental underlying it, that gets discovered. Light is magic. Light is electromagnetism powers our planet and our entire society, everything we do and everything we think about, and to a lot of people it’s a black box: gestures go in (pressing buttons on the remote control, say) and magic comes out (for example, scrying: tuning the TV in to a news report or a live sports event).
We forget this. We forget the mystery and the wonder and we take it for granted, and that’s exactly what happens with anything that’s sufficiently well understood. In a world where monsters exist, they don’t call them monsters, they have names for the creatures they know, some of which are horribly aggressive. In a world where magic exists, they don’t see it as magic once it’s been studied long enough. It’s just there. Boring. Ordinary. Mundane. Bland. They write books in which “magic” exists and wish they lived in worlds like that and forget that they already do.
So when I set out to write the Path of the Gods series, I had to stop, and think, and work out what would be their normal. What they wouldn’t even remark on, and what alternate sets of rules they might imagine instead for their fantasy novels. I do my best to weave their additional abilities as deep into the fabric of the universe as I can easily go, and as a result they have hard and fast limits, can discuss what they’re doing knowledgeably, and know the difference between the mundane and the marvellous. They don’t see it as magic at all, just another facet of the universe, and in fact to reflect that, to reflect how deep it goes, I tend to refer to such settings as “Physics+” rather than “magic”. The Path of the Gods takes place in a kind of ‘science fantasy’ setting: it’s not the world we know, but if you just made a couple of modifications (and then didn’t look too closely at the physical laws of the universe, because I haven’t done that and I’m sure they won’t actually work) it could be. Everything, however inexplicable it looks, has a reason. Everything works. Technology moves on at a rapid pace and “humanity” is still headed out to space, they just have a couple extra tools in the box and that’s their normal.
So I don’t really call it exactly magic. Because that gives the wrong impression. Magic implies arbitrariness, and worse, incomprehension. Most people use it as a term for things they don’t, or don’t want to, understand. That’s not what I write about, as a general rule. Rakariel of Before the Sun Fades calls upon magic, and that is what I class as magic, but it’s one of a fairly small number of settings that incorporates something I consider fully magic – and even there, it does have some rules, and people are studying it. Perhaps one day they’ll understand it.
In the end, the real magic in the world is understanding, and in that sense, I’m almost always writing about it. These little tiny blobs of meat on a tiny rock orbiting an insignificant star can comprehend the cosmos. And what’s more glorious, more incredible, than that?