I don’t know about you, but I spent my Sunday afternoon running through a warehouse shooting zombies with a laser carbine – all as part of the IRL Shooter / Patient Zero project, which turned out to be excellent fun. As a result, though, I’m pretty freakin’ tired, as I’ve squandered all my adrenaline by lugging around a 4kg gun while screaming ‘contacts!’ every few moments. So as a result, I was too weary last night to finish this post, and that’s why it’s a day later than usual.
Now, where were we? Oh yes – talking about magic in the world of Raven’s Blood. Last week I talked about the magic of the Easterling lands; tonight’s it’s the turn of the Westrons.
The magic of the West
As before, there is a core principle behind Westron magic – everything comes with a price. In order to gain magical power or control over the world, or to channel that power through something else, one must make sacrifices and give up something in return. Minor or limited power may only require a small sacrifice, a cost in time or resources – but true power only comes after you give up the thing that matters most to you, perhaps the thing that made you seek power in the first place.
Story function: ‘Will this character succeed?’ really isn’t that engaging a question in fiction, because the answer is generally always yes – and if it’s no, then you usually have fair warning of what kind of downbeat sadface stuff you’re reading. ‘How much will this character sacrifice for victory?’ and ‘Is this character willing to lose in order to win?’ are much more interesting questions, and that’s what I’m hoping to emphasise with the principle of Westron magic.
The esoteric, gross form of Western magic is thaumaturgy – bargaining with the spirits of the higher planes for power. Specifically, thaumaturges use rituals to call and then bargain with the 27 Lords of the Lunar Court, which are governed by the Queen of Night and Regret. These spirits have great power and can lend that power to mortals, but it always comes with a price. That price is always something that matters on a personal level to the thaumaturge, for the Lords are beings of fate and meaning, and it’s fate and meaning that they rework to fulfil the bargain. A thaumaturge might give up the chance of ever knowing true love, or the ability to know joy, or of ever sleeping without nightmares again.
In exchange, the Lords grant power, whether power over the self, over others or over the world. A thaumaturge may become strong enough to kick through a wall or fully recover from a wound within days. She might control flames or winds, cloud the minds of others to become invisible or coax obedient life into stone or wood. The extent of the bargain is up to the whim of the Lords and the nature of the sacrifice. Thaumaturgy is not a common art, and its practitioners are seen as forbidding, dangerous people, but not feared as much as monstrous ichor-sorcerers.
Story function: While sorcery gives me flashy, overt and scary superhumans, thaumaturgy allows for more subtle characters in the style of Captain America, Black Widow, Spider-Man or any of the Bat-family. These are the characters that seem normal until they reveal their secret side, for good or ill. Thematically, the nature of the bargain reflects a core motif of superhero comics, especially Marvel comics – power has an innate tragedy to it. Characters lose what matters to them, and as the story progresses, they have to consider whether the loss was worth the gain.
The mundane, subtle form of Western magic is artifice – building tools and devices and then imbuing them with unusual or supernatural power. Artifice is a complex art that requires great study, but a skilled artificer can craft objects that are almost miraculous. The more powerful the item or its magic, the rarer and more valuable the materials needed to create it. In order to fund their projects and pay for their materials, many artificers sell their services and their creations; the most powerful are also the most wealthy – and the most in need of more wealth.
Story function: More toys, of course – magic swords, golems and crystal balls, but also exo-skeletons, rocket packs and lightning guns. Raven’s Blood is a gleeful mash-up of fantasy and supers, and awesome gadgets are a mainstay of both genres, so I knew I had to have some way of bringing those on board. I don’t have an Iron Man or Tony Stark character in mind yet, but you never know.
Artifice also gives me a more socially palatable alternative for Westrons to look up to. Everyone knows that thaumaturgy exists, and the rituals to call the Lords are simple to learn and perform, but the cost is high, too high for most people to bear. Artifice is a more difficult, more technical form of magic, but all it costs is time, effort and materials, and artificers are respected artisans. Well, until they decide to steal all the orichalcum in the city to create an army of robots…
(As an aside – I reserve the right to change the names of characters, ethnicities, magic systems and pretty much everything else as the book progresses.)
East meets West
It’s easy to see similarities between the two forms of magic, both on a narrative and a conceptual level. That’s deliberate. I like developing a structure and then seeing how it can be filled, so breaking each set of ideas down in the same way – core principle, esoteric form, mundane form – is conceptually satisfying to me and lets me think about ways to apply that approach to different ideas in the future. If I did a sequel and wanted to involve necromancy or dwarven iron-lore (oh yeah, the dwarves, forgot to mention them), then I have a framework to start developing those and drawing out core themes.
I also like drawing parallels between things, which is another reason why the structure is repeated along with some core narrative elements. Why are there 27 Hosts and 27 Lords of the Lunar Court? What’s the connection there? Do people in the setting see the similarity? Those are questions I want readers to ask, and they’re questions I will probably address at some point. Once I work out the answers.
Themes aside, the two forms also interact narratively within the story in various ways. Artifice and alchemy pair up nicely, and it’s possible to learn both skills and draw on both disciplines – the creation of pistols and rifles after the war was just such a project, packing explosive burn-salt into hand-crafted iron tubes and stocks. It also means our heroes can (and do) happily use both smoke bombs and magic swords at the same time. Sorcery and thuamaturgy, on the other hand, are completely incompatible – the use of one forever precludes the other. Is that a physical incompatibility or a supernatural one? That’s a good question, and again the kind of thing I want readers (and characters) to ask.
Okay, that’s enough on the subject of magic. Hopefully it’s got you intrigued as to how I develop those ideas and use them to evoke kick-arse scenes and drive interesting stories; if not, well, we probably both could have found better uses of our time than this blog post.
I for one do have better things to do next weekend – I’ll be flying off to Shanghai for a week, along with my lovely wife! We’ll be hanging out with friends and celebrating a 40th birthday by exploring the Paris of the East (and taking a bullet train to Beijing and back). As a result of this, and because I’m going deliberately internetless for the duration, there’ll be no PODcom update next weekend – and depending how late we get back, maybe not the weekend after. We shall see.
It’s okay to tell me you’ll miss me. You’re among friends here. Just try to soldier on while I’m gone.
2 replies on “The magic of Raven’s Blood (part 2)”
I’m impressed and terrified by the amount of thought you’ve put into this. My current WIP has a much less coherent “magic” system, one that is only as clearly defined as the plot requires. I’m not convinced that my approach is all that tenable, but I also don’t think I have the design discipline that you’re applying here.
You know what? I really want to read this book. It sounds like a bit of a lark (I’m a sucker for transposed-superheroes settings).
It’s really less thought than it looks – and most of that thought came at the end when I was writing it down for public consumption.
In the end it’s still bottom-up worldbuilding – my first thought is always ‘what do I want in this story?’ rather than ‘what would make sense to include in this setting?’. Everything then follows in order to justify and lampshade the stuff I already know I want to write about.
So there’s not that much discipline involved, except maybe for the structural sort of approach – and after decades of gaming, that’s kind of second nature to me. It’s all much less hard than it might seem at first glance.
And yes, you do want to read this. Tell your friends.