I've been looking at more modern fantasy books of late, and one thing that I've discovered is that many of them seem to portray magic very abstractly. One book even went so far as to describe magic as "resonating within the heart". The reader cannot touch, taste, see, hear, or feel that. Magic should appeal to at least one of those senses, if not more.
A fantasy series I love is the Harry Potter one. Magic is performed through incantations that need to be pronounced agonisingly well, for the correct results to be achieved. Magic comes in many different colors, and is often accompanied by a bang or a popping sound. In many cases, it leaves a smell or a kind of pall behind it. All of those things are sensual. Even though magic is performed with a wand, Rowling still manages to avoid coming across as stereotypical.
Other excellent uses of magic include that which is described in Paolini’s books, in which something must be correctly named for the user to have power over it. This is an idea that Ursula Le Guin also explored, much before Paolini’s time. Paolini further authenticates magic by showing the toll it has on a person. It makes them incredibly weary, and its effects last only so long. Clear and realistic rules further serve to make magic believable.
A recent example I discovered was included in the book The Indigo Spell by Richelle Mead. Richelle Mead shows the many different substances, amulets, and herbs needed to perform magic. Magic is clearly a force that requires many resources and much energy and skill to perform. By grounding the use of magic in physical realities, Mead makes the magical experience gripping for the modern day audience.
In my own books, I have strived steer right away from the traditional portrayal of magic. Yes, magic is accompanied by bursts of light, bangs, or rushing noises. But I’ve tried to put a unique spin on it. Instead of calling it magic, I’ve called it kesmal. In giving it a different name, I’ve tried to give it a different definition.
“Kesmal?” Etana said. “Well, it’s very beautiful, Rafen. The Tarhians call it ‘sorcery’ but kesmal is really an imbalance in the nature of something causing a supernatural result …” (Excerpt from Rafen, first book of The Fledgling Account, out this August).
All things are made up of a particular balance of four basic principles: fire, water, air, and earth. (This may all sound a bit like classical thought, inspired by the Greek philosopher Empedocles; in truth, I've leaned on resources like this.) When an imbalance is created in the composition of something – suppose that more water is injected into the natural balance of air –kesmal, or the supernatural, results. Air is normally the medium which is manipulated the most in kesmalic conflicts. The ability to perform kesmal is an inherent thing. Some people naturally have an imbalance in their elemental composition. Perhaps they have proclivity toward water or fire. The result is that they can perform kesmal – that they are, indeed, a type of kesmal. Kesmalic ability can be divided into two categories: daniit kesmal, which is the manipulation of the physical; and jarl, which is the manipulation of the spiritual. People who have jarl in their veins (and this is by far the most rare type of kesmal) can see spirits and influence them. Kesmal is not performed with an incantation, nor does it require a wand. An instrument of some description can serve to focus the discharge of someone’s kesmal, but it is not necessary for the actual performance. Kesmal is often taught as a branch of philosophy or thought, in conjunction with physical warfare. But in truth, it is performed instinctively, and responds to one’s intentions and emotions. It is a largely a matter of the will, combined with self-control, deep thought, and consistent and intense currents of energy.
Here’s an example of kesmal in conflict.
“Do not bluff your way out of this, Alakil,” he said. “You have broken into a palace where you are no longer welcome. You will pay the price.”
The first flash of blue was alarmingly quick, but Fritz flicked up a yellow shield, and then gave his sword another twist. The wall of yellow morphed into an overlarge arrowhead that shot toward Alakil’s face. Alakil sidestepped elegantly, moving the copper rod a fraction. Fritz’s kesmal vanished before it could hit the locked doors. The copper rod rose again, and this time Fritz was sure he could hear voices from it. A beam of blue forked five times, and each gleaming snake it left in the air shot toward Fritz’s eyes. Fritz stumbled back against the mullioned windows, regaining his balance just in time. Stepping before one of the black desks, he swiftly erected another wall of yellow that caught Alakil’s kesmal. It bound the blue in a gleaming mass, which rolled over in the air and threatened to envelope Alakil. The rod moved again, blindingly, and the kesmal vanished.
How is he doing that? Fritz thought wildly. He had seldom seen someone able to simply extinguish kesmal in battle. He flung his sword up again, feverishly searching for something to distract Alakil with. His phoenix feather felt as if it were about to burst into flames.
(Excerpt of Sovereign of the West, Volume Six of The Fledgling Account).
Clearly, Alakil’s kesmalic imbalance leans toward water. He is immensely skilled with that element. Fritz’s is harder to identify, but the very physical nature of his kesmal partially betrays that his primary skill is with earth, even though the color of his kesmal is yellow, like light. If one would feel Fritz’s kesmal, it would hit them with a solid impact – not with the cold, watery touch of Alakil’s work.
These, then, are several examples of how magic can be treated in a unique manner in literature. Readers should be able to visualise magic clearly, and should have knowledge of how it is done, what limitations it has, and how it manifests itself according to the senses. A strong portrayal of magic may well be enough to save a given fantasy book from falling into the cliché.