I've been a fan of fantasy novels ever since I picked up my library's copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as a nine-year-old. In an effort to combat Harry Potter hangover (remember, in those days we had to wait a year or two for the next installment of the series to be released), I started reading any book that promised to include witches, dragons, and the like. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that not all fantasy novels are created equal.
It's not enough to just throw a couple spells in a book and call it a fantasy novel. A great work of fantasy involves creating a complex magical world complete with its own detailed history and a governing set of rules. That's why people fangirl so hard over series like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings: they spend a ton of time developing their magical setting, which gives readers a more immersive experience.
The novels and series below contain some of my personal favorite magical systems in literature. Whether it's because they take the time to flesh out their world and characters or because they create a mind-bogglingly complex magical environment, these novels all boast a magical system that will captivate readers and have them wishing they lived in these magical realms.
Not content with just showing us how Narnia works, C.S. Lewis shows us its entire history, from how it was born (with Aslan creating it from nothing) to how it ends (with the faithful going to Aslan's Country in a truly biblical fashion). While the Christian allegory is definitely obvious and can feel a bit overbearing at times, I still love watching Narnia grow from birth until death and getting to explore it with a number of different protagonists. Lewis spends a lot of time mapping Narnia and giving us a background of it, which makes for a rich and detailed fantasy world.
The Harry Potter series was one of the first fantasy series I read as a child, so it was really my introduction to a large-scale, in-depth fantasy world operating side-by-side with the world as I knew it. Witches and wizards didn't hide out in cottages performing spells in secret; they lived, worked, and shopped among Muggles, had a bureaucracy that resembled our own, and received a formal magical education. They had newspapers and hospitals and sporting events. I loved how closely the magical world mirrored ours, as it became less fantastical and much easier to believe that magic was secretly all around me.
The Magicians trilogy is one of my favorite fantasy series, and its magical system is definitely indebted to the likes of Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. But that's why I love it! Grossman has no qualms about lovingly ripping off concepts from other sources, which means we get a Hogwarts-esque magical education system AND a Narnia-inspired land of Fillory. But this world is also made up of psychotic gods, murderous ghosts, and perpetually drunk 20-something magicians. So combine Harry Potter and Narnia and now slap a "R" rating on it.
If you're anything like me, you wanted less King Arthur and more Morgan Le Faye from your English legends. This retelling of the Arthurian legend from its female characters' points-of-view details the inner workings of Avalon and the worship of the Mother Goddess. We learn exactly how Morgan becomes the powerful sorceress of legend, following her through her priestess training to her role as queen of the faeries to her hand in Arthur's demise. Bradley pays close attention to the spells, rituals and beliefs that make up Morgan's worship and weaves a complex magical system of goddess worships that spans multiple generations.
Magic in Discworld isn't exactly the wand-waving you might be used to. It's more of the scientific than the spell-casting variety. No one quite understands magic, including the wizards at Unseen University, and witches tend not to bother with it most of the time. Quite honestly, considering its similarity to particle physics, I would prefer not to try to understand magic either. While this scientific approach to magic is fascinating, don't worry if you're more into the typical fantasy stuff: Discworld sits atop four elephants and a giant turtle floating through space, so it's not all science.
It's Arthurian legend meets Lord of the Rings meets the Old West as Gunslinger Roland Deschain of Gilead embarks on a quest to reach The Dark Tower. Throw in monsters, demons, travel between worlds and time, and references to a bunch of other fantasy and Stephen King novels, and you kind of have an idea of what you're in for. I love the way this magical Wild West interacts with our world, especially when it involves bringing back famous Stephen King characters and even a version of the author himself!
Aren't most, if not all, modern fantasy novels in debt to Tolkien's rich and frighteningly detailed Middle Earth? The man made up a language that people can actually speak, for goodness sake! Outside of introducing us to proper Elvish, Tolkien's world is made up of men, hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards, dragons...the list goes on and on. Each has a unique and detailed history, so if you're a reader who likes to get really in depth with your books, this series is perfect for you.
Admittedly, for a book in which one of the protagonists calls herself the Mother of Dragons, you'll be excused for thinking there isn't a ton of magic as we're used to it in this series. The magic in this series doesn't often take center stage, but when it does it tends to be powerful and violent: a mad priestess who births a deadly shadow, icy undead creatures who will tear you limb from limb and then make you one of their own, and of course the aforementioned dragons. This almost makes the magic more realistic: the characters' grim reality makes them skeptical towards magic, which of course only makes it that much more explosive when it's used.
I'm guilty of being a huge The Night Circus fangirl, but it's more than just the gorgeous writing that pulled me in. I love that Le Cirque des Rêves is like a self-reliant magical universe within the real world, and that magic in the novel is actually connected to a deadly competition between two rival magicians. In this world, magic, even when it's used to create wondrous and whimsical displays, is a weapon to be used to destroy your enemy. It looks beautiful and fun, but it serves a pretty dark purpose. It's as dangerous as it is gorgeous, and I love that Morgenstern challenges our concept of magic in that way.
Earthsea's magic comes primarily in the forms of humans and dragons, who were once one species before splitting into two distinct creatures. At first, it seems like magic is predominantly male: only men can become powerful wizards, whereas female magic is looked down upon as inferior. Luckily, we later learn that women actually have a long history with magic, and that their exclusion from modern magical education is the result of some particularly misogynistic wizards. Points for the inclusion of a badass female character who's half-dragon!
Images: Walt Disney Pictures