The Big Idea: D.B. Jackson
Posted on July 10, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 9 Comments
There’s a system to things — especially magic. Why is there a system, and what is its function in telling a story? D.B. Jackson has a few thoughts on the matter, and how it matters to his latest colonial-era fantasy novel, A Plunder of Souls.
Creating magic systems is to writing fantasy what learning scales is to playing guitar or piano. It’s a fundamental, a basic skill that fantasy writers learn early on. Of course every magic system is at least somewhat unique — we all strive for originality when building our worlds and imbuing them with the powers that will become vital tools for our characters as our narratives unfold. But there are certain elemental principles of creating a magic system to which just about every author adheres: make sure the act of using magic carries some cost; place some limits on what magic and those who wield it can do; and above all, keep the magic consistent. Just as we cannot escape the natural laws that govern life in our real world — gravity, conservation of mass, Newtonian laws of motion, etc. — there should be no escaping the laws that govern our imagined systems of magic.
Except . . .
One doesn’t have to read much fantasy to realize that trying to escape the limits we place on our magic systems is just about the only thing our characters do, particularly the villainous (read “interesting”) ones. They seek more power than they ought to have, or they try to escape the costs we’ve so carefully built into the systems, or they seek to create new rules that apply only to themselves. Our heroes are then forced to find innovative ways to stop them, and invariably those heroes wind up bending the rules as well.
Notice I said “bending” and not “breaking.” Because more often than not the ultimate act of heroism lies not in sheer power, but in ingenuity, in finding some unexpected way to overcome the villain within the very constraints of the magic system that the antagonist hopes to evade. It’s a tried and true plot device that one can find not only in books, but also in movies and television, not only in fantasy, but also in science fiction. (Think of Data’s Moriarty on Star Trek: TNG, plying Doctor Pulaski with crumpets and extending his reach beyond the confines of the Holodeck to very nearly take command of the Enterprise.)
In A Plunder of Souls, the third novel in my historical urban fantasy series, the Thieftaker Chronicles, my conjuring, thieftaking hero, Ethan Kaille, takes on a villain who seeks to gather more power for himself than any conjurer ought to have. “Magick” in my version of pre-Revolutionary Boston, exists at the boundary between the living world and the realm of the dead. Every conjurer has a guide — the ghost of an ancestor who was also a conjurer — who helps him or her access that source of power. And so my villain, Nate Ramsey, has desecrated the graves of the recently deceased, placed his mark upon the corpses, and claimed them as soldiers in a ghostly army. With this force, he seeks to prevent others from casting spells, leaving himself as not merely the most powerful conjurer the world has known, but as the one person in the world who can cast spells.
It’s both a familiar idea and a big one. Familiar because it works: authors in our genre have used a thousand variations on this theme to create gripping and compelling narratives. Big because it taps into something central to human nature: the corrupting influence that can emanate from any sort of power. Ramsey is already a skilled conjurer, but in addition to being brilliant, he’s also cruel, a bit mad, and bent on avenging the death of his father.
More, he hopes to bend the laws of nature just as he does the laws of magic, so that his mastery of the realm of the dead will allow him to return his father to the world of the living. He refuses to accept that his reanimated father would be an abomination, something neither living nor dead and certainly nothing like the man who raised him. He seeks to master death, and is so drunk with the notion of doing so that he can’t see beyond the realization of his twisted aims.
It was no accident that I sought to have Ramsey violate both natural and magical law. As I’ve said already, in creating my magic systems I seek to make them elemental, so that they are as constant and inviable as nature itself. Equating Ramsey’s magical ambitions with his desire to resurrect his father reinforces not only the dark elements of his character, but also the worldbuilding I have done to make Colonial Boston into a setting that is both historically convincing and fantastical. I should add here that all of this is happening within the context of a growing movement for liberty within the colonies, and a smallpox epidemic spreading through Boston. It also bears mentioning that Ramsey’s attempts to enhance his power, and the magical battles in which he engages with Ethan are pretty frickin’ cool, if I do say so myself. “Familiar,” certainly isn’t meant to imply “humdrum.”
But the greater point is this: in order to thwart Ramsey’s scheme, Ethan must venture down a path that is nearly as dark as the one Ramsey has followed. He, too, must disturb the graves of the dead and attempt spells that, while still conforming to the established rules of my magic system, test the boundaries of that system in ways that would have been unthinkable to him only a short while before. Even if he succeeds (and you’ll have to read the book to find out if he does), and even if the integrity of the magic system is reaffirmed, there is bound to be a cost. Already, Ramsey’s actions have exposed unexpected vulnerabilities; other conjurers of comparable skill, harboring similar ambitions, might test it further, requiring my hero to be even more creative next time around.
As I say, this stretching of the magic system is a plot device that is at once familiar and effective. It tests our worldbuilding, forces our characters to innovate and grow, and challenges us to take our narratives in directions we might not have anticipated. And that’s why it’s not only a big idea, but also a fun one.
A Plunder of Souls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
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“I am an evil who opposes other evils”. Maybe that’s darker than what Ethan is doing in the novel ( as yet unread) but that’s the line that comes to mind when you talk about the plot here, David :)
I like jazz, when they lay down a melody and then play with it. It is how well you play within the rules that makes makes things interesting. Variations on a theme are compelling. It’s great hearing an author using that fact readily through a book.
Paul, I think there is some element of that, though Ethan doesn’t wind up coming across as too evil. I don’t think . . .
Michael, many thanks. As a jazz fan myself, I think that’s a great analogy.
With respect to the author’s very detailed “magic systems” analysis:
I accept that a well-conceived magic system is a way for fantasy writers to distinguish themselves from the many other such writers publishing today. But I simply seem to have reached my lifetime tolerance for magic in a story, to the point that the likelihood I’ll ever read this author or his contemporaries is vanishingly small. I know that I’ll miss out on a lot of good writing, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else.
The final book that in retrospect seems to have pushed me over the threshold, after only a handful of magic novels over several decades, was one I read more than a year ago: The Magician King by Lev Grossman. Part of a series, as is nearly obligatory these days. Nothing against that author, either – as a son of the recently late professor Allen Grossman (who taught a simply great class about storytelling itself, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh), he’d better be a crack storyteller – but I’m not even sure I’ll read the next book in the series, even though I’ve read the first two.
Sorry to hear that, Gottacook. I can understand growing tired of the same old same-old. And you’re free, of course to read or not read what you’d like. But I do think that there is some remarkably good fantasy being written currently, quite apart from my own books, and I believe that you’ll be missing out on some excellent storytelling if you decide to avoid books with magic in them. Thanks for the comment.
I actually like fantasy where the magic is NOT systematic; where it’s capricious and dangerous and hard to catch hold of. Where the systematic attempts of the characters to tap into to become laughable in the face of the barely-understood forces at work: Clarke’s “man with the thistle-down hair”, Martin’s R’hllor, Abercrombie’s Bayaz, Stross’s Great Old Ones, and of course Lovecraft. I like it when magic reflects the restless (and utlimately fruitless) human desire to try to wrest order from a vast and looming chaos: hedge magicians and soothsayers and blood sacrifice and fire and howling gods and shadows on the landscape. (Sort of like the Hebrew scriptures.)
Then again, my favorite fantasy ever is Daniel Abraham’s Long Price series, which has probably the most systematic magic ever penned (though, again, capricious and dangerous forces at work.) Your book sounds very interesting; it’s in my queue.
Thanks, Matt. Hope you enjoy the book. I think that as long as the magic has some internal logic it can be capricious and dangerous and mysterious. It’s when magic is vague and seems to morph with the needs of the narrative that I get concerned. But I’m sure that the examples you give, by some truly amazing authors, don’t do that.
I haven’t read this post, precisely because I’m in the middle of reading the book (discovered through Kate Elliott’s blog). I’m about a quarter of the way through, and it’s off to a great start. If you’re on the fence, I’d suggest taking the plunge. –Which makes perfect sense, if for some reason you have a fence in the water…
FYI: Based on what I’ve read so far, I don’t think you need to have read either of the previous volumes to follow the action in this one.
I have read the previous volumes and have found the set to be a wonderful antidote to fantasy overkill. Jackson has obviously done his homework on 17th century Boston. Leaving aside the magic, the world-building is irresistable. Highly recommended to any history or mystery nut.