From Merlin to Mistborn- Magic for Mercenary Kings

This week, I’ve gotten the opportunity to hear from some excellent bookbloggers and authors about magic in fantasy. I have yet to read The Mercenary Kings by Nick Martell but Fantasy Book Nerd, bookblogger extraordinaire, has succeeded in moving it up my massive tbr with his explanation of magic in Martell’s books. Check it out below!

Fantasy Book Nerd: When I was asked to do this by Jodie, I have to admit that I had to wrack my brains for a maximum of about two seconds before I knew what I wanted to discuss. And that was Nick Martell’s magic system, which I have found to be one of the most fascinating magic systems that I have read recently.

Now, I know that Nick Martell has only released two books in an ongoing series, but with both ‘The Kingdom of Liars’ and ‘The Two Faced Queen’, the magic is developing in ways that I didn’t expect.

For those of you that have not read these books, I will try to avoid spoilers because as I said the story is still developing, and no one likes spoilers. 

Right, before we go anywhere let’s first look at the word ‘magic’! What does it actually mean? 

There are many definitions of the word. The Collins English Dictionary describes it as: –

  1. The Power to use supernatural forces to make something happen, such as making things disappear or controlling events in nature.
  2. You can use magic when you are referring to an event that is so wonderful, strange, or unexpected that it seems as if supernatural powers have caused it. You can also say that something happens as if by magic or like magic.
  3. You use magic to describe something that does things, or appears to do things, by magic.
  4. If you refer to the magic of something, you mean that it has a special mysterious quality which makes it seem wonderful and exciting.

    Hmm, all of these definitions of magic apply in fantasy fiction really don’t they, each and every one, and they are prominent in each of the magic systems that I have read.

Prior to discussing the magic in the books of Nick Matell, let me tell you a little of the story for those that don’t know it. The main focus of the book is Michael Kingsman, the disgraced son of the king’s right hand man, David Kingsman who was executed for killing the king’s young son. 

That is about as much as I am going to tell you about the plot. 

I have found in fantasy books, there are many ways that magic systems are introduced, some authors will describe how their systems work in one go and will give the information in one long exposition, and others will drip feed the system throughout the book as the story demands,and it will be used as a device to move the story along.

Fabrication,the magic system of The Kingdom of Liars comes in many forms, such as light and dark fabrication. Additionally, the magic can take different forms and be individualised to each person, with the effects of the magic having a different effect on those that use it. As the story progresses, we learn that there are Lightning and metal fabricators. 

In Nick Martell’s books, the power of fabrication is primarily used for militaristic purposes, and most of the characters (especially if they are from the lower classes)  strive to get into the Fabricator  army, or in guard service. At this stage of the books, it isn’t described as being intrinsic or part of the essence of the world like in some other fantasy systems. 

Now, when describing magic systems, they can effectively be placed in the soft magic/hard magic camps. Depending on the author they can fluctuate between the two on a literal spectrum and can have as many or few rules as the author sees fit.

You all may have heard of a relatively unknown author by the name of Brandon Sanderson (yes, yes! That was a terrible example of sarcasm) who puts forth that there are rules in relation to magic systems.

(I have no doubt that someone will have mentioned the difference between the soft and hard magic camps. But just in case they haven’t, here is a quick recap).

Soft magic follows very few laws. However, there is a law attached to it, in that if it is used to solve problems, in a deus ex machina kind of way, it can diminish the impact of the magic system.

However, with hard magic there are explicit rules for the magic system and the characters do not step outside the boundaries.

Additional to this, there is the middle ground, in which the author designs a set of rules, but they are fluid as the story progresses. 

(If you want to read these set of essays on the rules of magic, then I suggest you go to Brandon Sanderson’s website and have a look, they are all  rather good pieces, and I attribute all the words above to those pieces)

Looking at Nick Martell’s books, the magic system in there definitely falls into the hard magic camp, (now please don’t quote me on any of this. This is conjecture on my part). Throughout the book, most of the characters can only have one fabrication (although, there are exceptions to this rule, but it is very rare). The magic is based on tangible things in nature i.e. elements, such as lightning, metal, smoke, fire, light, dark etc. and they may take on certain characteristics of the said fabrication. For instance, if you are a metal fabricator, you can alter your body to be hard and impervious to damage. However,it doesn’t make you impervious to everything as  this can be negated by a lightning fabricator who could use your body as a conductor for electricity or maybe throw you in a pool of water, in which you sink as if you are heavy, like metal. 

From the outset, Nick Martell is applying rules to the magic system. This obviously has an effect on the reader, as it is applying boundaries and laws and also giving the reader a limit as to what magic can achieve, thus making the reader more involved with any plot developments that may arise.

However, when you look at Nick Martell’s magic system, it is not just the ‘what can the magic system actually do’ point that makes it interesting, it is also the ’what can’t it do, and the effects that it has on the user’ that elevates it’s wow factor.

In his essay on the second law of magic systems, Sanderson identifies that limitations are greater than powers. He then goes on to discuss that in the Wheel of Time,Robert Jordan introduced one of the greatest costs to any magic system, in that men who use magic lose their sanity, thus increasing the jeopardy when using a magic system and has ramifications on the story and the characters..

Similarly, in Nick Martell’s magic system, he introduces a significant cost to the use of magic. The concept is introduced in the early stages of the book when Nick Martell highlights that the use of magic leads to the user losing memories. This could be some simple everyday memory. However, this is not the only cost. In some instances it can leave the user blind, because they have ‘forgotten’ how to carry out this intrinsic task. And if there is a constant use of magic, the user is at risk of becoming something called ‘a forgotten’ which is basically a fantasy representation of Alzheimer’s, where the person loses most functional skills, in addition to their memories. This weakness of the magic system introduces some pretty large ramifications to the story in that it introduces a significant element of risk and thus reducing the use of magic as a ‘deus ex machina’ plot device.

In the second of his two books, he expands the magic system to include other races in the world and differing systems. However, again, he introduces cost, and I have to say that in this instance, the ramifications are more visceral in that the use of magic comes directly from the infliction of pain, and this pain comes from the user in order to access magic. So, the user may break their own fingers, or use other instances of pain. However, either way there is a cost that can have a permanent and lasting damage to the magic user.

As you can see, this gives the reader the sense of jeopardy and brings to the fore that magic cannot solve all the problems that Michael Kingsman comes across, thus having to force him to use other methods that he may have at his disposal, such as his wits, or other tools. 

Now, we come to the final bit of the magic system. How does the magic system develop and grow? 

Relating this to Sanderson’s third law of magic, Expand what you already have before you add something new. .

Throughout both Kingdom of Liars and The Two Faced Queen, Nick Martell is constantly evolving the magic system. In the first chapters of The Kingdom of Liars we are introduced to just the two fabrications – Light and Dark Fabrications. However, as the story progresses and the main character is attempting to find his own power, we are introduced to the other facets of fabrication, and that people have other abilites beyond these two powers. We learn that there is lightning, metal and a plethora of other interesting things. And then we come to the second book, The Two Faced Queen, again the magic system is expanded with the introduction of other races and cultures. But not only that, there is the big expansion of the magic system, and when I say big, I mean big. However, I am not going to tell you anything about that – major plot spoiler!  However, the expansion of the magic system with the other cultures is relatable as it is building on to a similar concept used by Michael and the other characters in the book.

Right, there you have it. My ramblings on Nick Martell’s magic system. I hope you enjoyed it and please check out the other contributors on this week of magic systems..

About the Blogger: Fantasy Book Nerd here! As you can see from the name, I might have a bit of a thing for fantasy. 
I know, shocking isn’t it? I don’t know what gave it away!
Anyway, if you liked what I wrote, you can find some more reviews on www.fantasybooknerd.com. Don’t be scared, I don’t bite, and neither does Frank – The skelebog jester who guards the site.
Oh, and I also occasionally post on Gingernuts of Horror.

For more from this series:
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Wheel of Time
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- The Coldfire Trilogy
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- The Weather Warden
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- And Now This
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Blood, Fire, and Death
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Teaching Physics to Barbarians

15 thoughts on “From Merlin to Mistborn- Magic for Mercenary Kings

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