I’m reading Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson right now. I’ve been reading Sanderson since his first book, Elantris. It was a great book, with a system of magic I’d never read before. The rules of the system of magic were a huge piece of what made the world work. They consistent, the plot depended on them. A few simple rules that made magic, well, not make sense, but make sense in the world. A huge part of the story comes from those simple rules, and what makes magic work or not work.
This has become a hallmark of Sanderson’s work. Now, he does compelling stories, brilliant character work, he’s overall just a great writer. That has led to his being one of the best and most compelling writers in fantasy today. Many people know him best because he was selected to finish Robert Jordan’s super epic “The Wheel of Time”, but for my money, Sanderson is a better writer then Jordan was.
Back to these magic rules though. Every series he does has a distinct set of rules for how magic works and those rules are essential to the plot. They move the story forward. Sometimes it’s a subtle detail, a small thing that you didn’t notice until later, but he never cheats. If you think he’s cheated, that’s probably the key point. The characters have missed something and there is something else going on in to make things look the way they do. A character exercising powers in a way that doesn’t make sense means that the character has something going on that makes it make sense.
I don’t know how to stress how much that improves his work. It lends a depth to it. Now, that doesn’t mean that the rules are simple, or easy. They can be quite in depth and layered, giving you lots of meat to work with, lots of ways to miss a detail… but the detail is there and when he comes back to it and shows you what it was, it always makes sense. Not only that, but it’s not THE PLOT, it’s merely something that drives the plot forward.
There is a lot to learn from Sanderson, and I now follow in his footsteps when it comes to magic. I don’t always make it the driver though, it’s often less of a factor in my stories, I write more horror than fantasy, and even when I do write fantasy the magic may not be as important as the politics… however, I have learned to craft a magic system that is internally consistent. I don’t even always tell the reader what the system is, and there are books where nobody will ever understand (in the Jenny Dark series one feature of hell is that entropy doesn’t exist – there are a large number of effects that come from that, when I describe hell you will see those effects, but in the books themselves that’s all you see, the reason behind it is hidden).
It’s a thing too many fantasy writers ignore.