- by Elaine Isaak
Ya know, I like magic as much as the next person. . . no, I think I have to take that back. I don’t like magic when it’s just a big special effects show. I like magic to be fully integrated with the plot and characters of the book. I don’t need to know how it works, as long as I’m confident it works in a consistent way, and that the author has developed that way in the privacy of his or her own mind. And yes, as far as I’m concerned, “Magic, do as you will!” is consistent.
But I am here today to complain about the authors who solve problems in their books by throwing magic at them. Random, fun, happy magic. Look, here’s a little more magic! Hey, the reader will never notice if I add a pinch more magic!I just finished reading this book in which two girls are being secretly trained in magic by their governess, and the book starts with constant concern about what will happen if they get caught. The implication is that they live in a society that either doesn’t believe in magic, or that imposes severe punishments for its use. By the end of the book, it turns out the little brother also has magic (despite our being told that magic is rare in men in this era), the love interest has magic, the governess’s love interest has magic, and the mother has known all along that they’re all magical and doesn’t mind at all. Oh–and now the queen and most of her court knows they are magic and nobody cares.
Not only is this a few too many secret magic users for me in a relatively small scope (the proportion of named character magic users seemed to explode as the book wore on), but the constraint on the use of magic was supposed to be societal pressure against it. Big Secret! Don’t tell!! Don’t reveal your talent!!! In the end, it doesn’t matter. Either, the girls are naive and foolish (which makes them less sympathetic) or the author just wanted to keep secrets, but didn’t want there to be any actual social cost to magic.
Social cost is a huge factor in many behaviors. Wear the right clothes. Behave the right way, at least in public. Thankfully here in the American present, we don’t have literal punishments for a lot of the behaviors once viewed in a poor light. Let’s not forget that Joan of Arc was burned, in large part, for her recalcitrance about wearing the wrong clothes–men’s. If you set up this kind of dynamic in the society of the book, it creates a lot of useful tension–don’t blow it all by having it turn out to be no big deal! Hearing voices again, Joan? Don’t worry about it.
Part of the delight in setting up such a society is the idea that the reader is sharing in the delicious, and dangerous, secret of magic. If everyone has it, and everyone knows about it, the fun evaporates along with the secrecy. Play the magic card a little closer to the chest.