Friday, September 12, 2014

PR Special Edition: Kameron Hurley

Poisoned Rationality Special  Edition

Welcome to another Poisoned Rationality Special Edition!  Today we welcome Kameron Hurley, author of the recently released The Mirror Empire and one of my favorite trilogies the Bel Dame Apocrypha.  She's going to discuss magic systems - so pay attention, you'll learn a lot I say completely unbiasedly.

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.

In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin.

As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.

In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.


"Bug Magic and Satellite Mages: 
Writing Magic Systems that Stand Out"

There are, I’m told, two schools of building magic systems. The first are the rule-builders. The careful architects of rule-based magic that have detailed costs and benefits, restrictions and power-ups. Many refer to this as the Brandon Sanderson school of magic; it’s so codified it’s almost like a science. It’s “hard” fantasy, for lack of a better term. The second school is, I admit, the one I get far more excited about, and that’s sometimes referred to as the Tolkien school, or simply the WTF school. It’s the HEY! We are writing fricking FANTASY school. And in that school of thought lies this: we are dealing with strange and unknowable powers. We aren’t always going to have all the answers. We’ll muck about. We’ll make a mess. At the end of the day, magic is about miracles, and miracles don’t have rules, only guidelines.
Both of these approaches can be super successful, it simply depends on which one you’re partial to. I grew up reading 90’s fantasy, which was generally a pretty rule-bound system. I’m uncertain if it was the influence of science fiction that compelled this rule-based magic logic to take over from the more free-wheeling mythological divinity type. Most likely it was simply the influence of tabletop gaming. Dungeons and Dragons inspired a massive swath of writers, and they often brought their love of rulebooks and stats and hit points with them.

I don’t tend to start by building a rule-bound magic system, but make the rules up as I go along. Instead of seeing it as “cheating” I actually find that it’s a more imaginative way for me to build the system. If you sit down and set out all the rules before you actually start moving your people around in the world, you limit your choices right out of the gate. It’s like putting on a blindfold and diving into the water and saying the rules say you can only turn to the right. What kind of sense does that make?

I worked toward building a more organic system in my God’s War novels, a science-fantasy noir that uses bugs and the ability to control them as a sort of techno-magic wielded by magicians. I went in knowing that certain kinds of bugs could be directed to perform certain tasks, but only by those imbued with the gift to do so. I had several scenarios in mind about how they’d come by this power, but didn’t want any of them to be explicit in the text. The fact was that it had happened so long ago that it was now just considered magic. I wrote down what certain types of bugs were known to do as I came up with them – I didn’t work it all out beforehand. I didn’t draw up big schematics of how they powered the vehicles or what combinations of which bugs did what. Those weren’t things my primary protagonist was interested in anyway, and were very unlikely to come up.

But where’s the tension? you might ask. Because the best part of a magic system is its restrictions. Those, too, I manufactured as I went. I didn’t decide magic users could be drugged until I did it to someone else during an interrogation. And I decided that the more wild the bug, as in, it not being tailored to a certain function in the cities, the harder it was to control. But I basically came up with that idea as a character said it out loud during my second book. Luckily no retconning was required – it hadn’t come up before.

My magic system in my new epic fantasy, The Mirror Empire , was a little different. Instead of bugs, this magic system revolved around the heavens. Three heavenly bodies rose irregularly in the sky, their orbits (for lack of a better word) erratic. Sometimes they just… appeared and disappeared a year or two earlier than expected. The heavens above them were not set. These heavenly bodies had a guide, not a rulebook. And as they rose and fell so too did the powers of those who drew on the particular bodies’ energy to create unique feats. Those who drew on Tira were great healers, and could manipulate living organic, non-sentient plants to their will. Those who drew on Sina had power over fire, and some could even bring back the dead. Para users could manipulate the air to do whatever they liked, and some could even change the weather. And the fourth body, Oma, the dark star, the star that only came around once every two thousand years or so, that one gave people a variety of powers, one of them being very unique: the power to open doors between worlds.

This magic system needed to be a little more codified than the one in the God’s War books because I knew I was going to be writing from the point of view of several characters who were actually living within strict systems that taught them how to use their powers, and put strict limits on them. That was done on purpose: this magic system brought with it so many great upsets in power that it made sense for many societies to attempt to manage and control those with the potential to use it as soon as possible. I also had to come up with rules for its use within specific societies.

I spent a little more time codifying this than I did with my bug magic, but funny enough, the magic system in this book is actually one I consider far more on the miraculous/divine spectrum that the bug magic. Sometimes you draw on the magic of your star and it works. Sometimes you draw on it, and it doesn’t. Sometimes you try and build one thing, and it becomes another. I wanted a much more fickle system. And in this system, though one is also able to drug a person to cut them off from the power of the stars, the most effective means of breaking a “spell” is simply to break the person’s concentration, whether through surprise or, most often, pain. I also wanted a fairly strict line-of-sight restriction where it was difficult to let loose a targeted attack unless you could actually see the thing you wanted to attack. That gave me a lot of restrictions and moments for tension, as well as one very memorable scene where I have a non-magical general working to outsmart a gifted assassin. Knowing what his restrictions were as she fought him was paramount to making a good scene.

But let’s be real: I didn’t spend days and days working this out. I spent a couple hours on it. The rest I figured out as I went, just like with the bug magic, and edited everything else to fit in revision.
Making magic systems that bust down the same old same old has been, for me, about not codifying too much of the system too soon. Yes, figure out your restrictions, some places for tension (reading about an all-powerful deity can be fun for awhile, but gets boring fast), but leaving some things unsaid was vital to my own creative process. To build really wondrous magic, leave room for the magic itself to tell you what direction it’s going and what it’s capable of. Restricting it too soon can strangle the capacity of your own creativity and imagination right out the gate.

And what is magic, after all, if it doesn’t bring with it some sense of wonder – not only to readers, but to you as a creator?


For me the magic system is always the primary attraction in a fantasy series.  Also despite my complete and utter dislike of people telling me what to do, I'm a fairly structured sort of person.   There is, as the Director always says, an order to things Counselor.  Looking at my favorite books though, most of them are, as Hurley says, "Hard fantasy".  Perversely I hate hard science fiction.  I like my science to be fictional and not bogged down by realistic mumbo jumbo.  Thank you Star Trek.

How about everyone else?  What kind of magic system do you favor--in your reading or your own writing?

Thank you Kameron for taking the time to come by and share with us your insights!

About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God's WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear's Best SFEscapePodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

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