Magic a la Carte

I’ve been reading The Rivers of London, which has been the new and hot thing among fantasy readers, but actually I wasn’t that impressed. To begin with, the main character seems sexually needy and pathetic, but that wasn’t the main thing I wanted to talk about.

Today I want to talk about the way magic is portrayed in fantasy books. There’s a certain style to doing it which readers have gotten used to and are comfortable with… maybe too comfortable. After all, magic is something mysterious and unpredictable, in my humble opinion.

But there are many writers out there who insist that there should be a magic “system” which basically makes it boil down to a science. There should be a price for every type of magic, they insist, as if someone was ordering it from a menu.

Isn’t the whole point of magic is that it’s, well, magical?

In Rivers of London, as the main character begins his training, all I want to do is yawn from ear to ear. I suddenly feel like I’m back in grade school. But strangely I didn’t feel like that when I was reading Harry Potter even though the magic was literally taught in a school.

harrypotter_1702585cMaybe the difference is in the way the ‘system’ is portrayed. There are things and devices that work like they’re supposed to, but also there is a bit of unexpected chaos.

I understand the need for a system and having some rules in place so that the reader doesn’t feel completely lost. But at the same time, this idea has been bothering me for some time. Too often, I’ve been reading a book thinking it’s going to be about magic, when it’s really more like science, and boring science at that.

Anyway, I guess my point is… don’t buy this book!

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25 thoughts on “Magic a la Carte

  1. Hi Carolee, nice post. I’m really sorry you didn’t enjoy ‘Rivers of London’.

    I loved it and have read the whole series apart from the last one which I haven’t caught up with yet. I actually like that the main character Pete is a bit nerdy and needy. May be it’s also because I love a flawed ‘hero’.:0)

    He’s a very young mixed race man who is a newly recruited policeman in London who starts seeing ‘odd’ things going on. I have read loads of ‘magical’ story books and I can’t think of another one that has had a mixed race person as their main character which I found refreshing.

    I really liked the premise of a special police unit who deal with Magical wrongdoers. There are magical people/creatures in the story, but Pete has to learn it for his job as he isn’t himself magical

    I love the thought of magical people or creatures being able to do things just by thinking them, but
    Magic being learned as a science actually appeals to me as it makes you feel that you don’t have to be the ‘special one’ or the ‘cursed one’ to have it. (the recent Dr Strange movie for instance – loved it apart from Tilda playing the role of the ‘Ancient One’ Tibetan Monk. She’s a great actress, but, well that’s a different discussion )

    Even though Harry Potter is born with magic, he still has to learn how to use it and be taught spells etc.,

    I love the way Ben Aaronovitch weaves the tales of old magic and old gods into a modern police story setting (younger river gods going to a rave for example) and would love to see it ‘on screen’ as I have such vivid pictures in my head when reading his books.
    I think the ‘sexism’ is about his internal dialogues (which I think are fairly realistic thoughts of a young man fighting with his libido) but his actual interactions with the women in the book I don’t think are.

    We all like different things and it’s funny how we can all read the same book and have completely different opinions about it, but that’s the great thing about books isn’t it :0)

    Happy Reading

    Kate :0)

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    1. I’m glad you weren’t offended by my ripping this book even though you loved it, Kate. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on magic. I understand where you’re coming from.
      For me, magic means leaving much of the real world behind, which is why I don’t mind stories with ‘the chosen one’ or a character who is cursed. I guess what I’m looking for is something that least resembles reality, but yes, that’s just personal taste. I liked American Gods by Neil Gaiman where it blends the mythologies with the modern setting. I haven’t seen Dr. Strange but I’ll check it out, it sounds interesting.
      I guess for me the sexism was not so much his thoughts but also the fact that the female characters were more like objects of sexual desire rather than active individuals. The fact that Leslie turned out to be merely a puppet was so disappointing. Anyway, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I was actually hoping someone would do an in-depth comment like yours because it also helped me to pinpoint things about magic in novels that were a bit hard to formulate without someone else advocating the other side. It’s true, we always have the magic of books, making us think more deeply πŸ™‚

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      1. Thanks Carolee, we can’t all like the same things and the discussion is great. :0)

        I know what you mean about Leslie, initially she went of her own choice because he promised to fix her but you could see she would probably end up a puppet in the end – unless of course she saves herself (I’m rooting for that rather than the ‘boys’ rescuing her – now that would be a cliche).

        Dr Strange is a bit like Harry Potter for Adults (no not that kind of ‘adult’) meets the Matrix on speed hahaha!
        It also has the ever adorable Benedict Cumberpatch as Dr Strange (with an American accent) and Chiwetel Ejiofor from 12 Years as a Slave (if you haven’t seen a British film called ‘Kinky Boots’ you must – no it’s not that type of film – Google/Wikipedia – Chiwetel is brilliant in it & you won’t believe it’s the same guy as in ’12 years’ he’s such a transformative actor, he moulds himself to the character he’s playing)

        I love American Gods by Neil Gaiman, but my favourite is Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – now that is a movie I would definitely want to see :0)

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        1. Thanks for the film recommendations, Kate. It’s funny you should mention Good Omens because I’m also a huge fan of that book. It’s so hilarious, and I can’t even imagine what the movie version would look like πŸ™‚

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  2. I haven’t read the book. If magic needed a system then it wouldn’t be magic, right? πŸ˜‰ hehe, in other words, I agree with you that it’s all a little silly!

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  3. Carolee I have not read the book and I have no intentions but what you say re magic is true. Magic should be magic. When we say something magical just happened, we sure don’t mean something predictable just happened and that is true of many fantasy books x

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    1. Haha I don’t think you’re at any risk of boring me with your writing, Mike! Besides, I enjoy your “gals always win” motto, whereas with Rivers of London, it was quite the opposite I’m afraid. A very sexist work, actually, but I didn’t want to blather on about that or it would make for a very long rant. Anyway, thanks for your kind words πŸ™‚

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      1. Ms Carolee, you rightly observe that for anything less than a gal victory, the writer is, at best sexist, at worst, a pervert. Let the gals rule the world…so long as they don’t act like Thatcher.

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  4. I looked it up. They say it is not good on Kindle for specific reasons – it is a graphic novel. I have to find a hard copy to have a look. Don’t want to buy a hard copy though – it has been three years since I am only buying electronic copies unless it is something extraordinary good :). I am very curious now, but not too crazy πŸ™‚

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    1. I didn’t know there was a graphic novel. The one I read was just the ordinary variety. I can’t believe I’m helping sell a copy of this work which I kind of hated. Well, if it brings you even a small amount of entertainment, I’ll be happy that I connected you with an enjoyable book. πŸ™‚

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      1. I am not familiar with the book. Didn’t know it was so popular πŸ˜‰ I remember dutifully reading Eat Pray Love because everyone talked about it, and wondering what was I doing and why? πŸ™‚ This might be the same case.

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        1. Yes, I think this is one bandwagon I can safely get off. That’s funny because I actually enjoyed Eat Pray Love, though I hated the other book so beloved by middle aged women, Wild. I couldn’t even finish the first chapter!

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