Urban Fantasy: Where Be Dragons?

The urban fantasy genre has no shortage of fantasy creatures. They have wizards, fairies, trolls, demons, giants, werewolves, and perhaps a dozen flavors of the undead. They have virtually all the magical beings from high fantasy, but… where are the dragons?

For that matter, where are the unicorns, gryphons, mermaids, basilisks, centaurs, and ents? I can’t claim to be an expert on urban fantasy, but I’ve read a few dozen, and so far, the magical creatures seem to be limited to those who can put on a pair of shoes and walk among us.

In fairness, that’s almost required by the genre since the fantastic part of the world is usually hidden away, and since a vampire can walk into a nightclub more secretly than a forty-ton dragon, things tip towards the vampires and their two-footed friends.

There are certainly exceptions, but the ones I can think of almost don’t qualify as “urban fantasy”. The Harry Potter novels had dozens of truly fantastic creatures far beyond humans with prosthetic foreheads. (Oops, sorry, wrong genre!) But I’m not sure Harry Potter qualifies as urban fantasy. It’s not that it violates rule #12 of the urban fantasy code. It just doesn’t have the same vibe to me.

But if we are to stick with the rule that the fantastical elements of urban fantasy must remain hidden from the mundane world, couldn’t we still sneak in a few dragons? It would be hard to keep one in Chicago, but I can think of a number of lowly populated areas they might hide.

The national park system would make excellent hunting grounds, and if they were ever spotted by some random hiker? Well, ma’am, we think it was a bear attack, though we never did find the body. If they restrict their flight to nighttime (or at least during camping season), who knows how long they could remain a secret, especially if they were able to employ magical powers to help hide them. (This might go far in explaining some of the wildfires in recent years.) Go worldwide, and there are plenty of places that dragons might find more hospitable than humans.

Given how little we see of our vast oceans, mermaids would have an easy time hiding out. They might even enjoy teasing our submarines. Centaurs and ents would find suitable homes in our forests, and the ents might even talk a few developers out of their plans. Basilisks would hunt as easily as dragons, and unicorns are well known for their invisibility to all but virgins. If I’m to believe the statistics, they should be safe as long as they stay away from grade schools.

Then again, these remote locations are hardly urban, now are they? Could you keep a small dragon in the city? What about mermaids living in the town lake or ents in the city park? And are unicorns really that invisible to the impure? I don’t know, but it would be cool to see an author try it.

I’m not saying that I require my urban fantasy to branch out to ents or dive into the realm of mermaids. They’re still good stories as they are. However, I am saying it would be nice to explore an imaginative world that is populated by more than vampires, zombies, and werewolves.

Is That a Wand in Your Pocket?

In this third and final installment on magic systems, I’m looking at magical items. These include everything from the One True Ring to the Elder Wand and all the little cloaks, rods, and potions in between. Some of these are disposable, others mere conveniences, while some are artifacts of unspeakable power. Fortunately, none are real, so I can talk about them all I want.

First I’d like to make a top-level division between two types of magical items. The first type are what I call focus objects. They help a wizard cast spells but are not of much use to non-wizards. The second type are what most people tend to think of when I say “magical item”. These items are intrinsically magical and can be used to good effect by anyone, regardless of their magical talent.

To clarify this distinction, let me use a couple of examples from Harry Dresden. Our dear Harry has a shield bracelet and a magically enhanced duster. He can use the shield bracelet to create an impregnable barrier, but to a non-wizard, it’s just a bracelet. His duster, on the other hand, has been layered with so much protective magic that it’s effectively bulletproof. It doesn’t matter who’s wearing it – the bullets stop anyway.

So first, let’s talk about focus objects. In Harry Potter’s universe, this would be the wizard’s wand. In Harry Dresden’s universe, it would be his staff or his blasting rod. For Gandalf, it would have also been his staff. You know, in writing this, there seems to be a certain phallic commonality to all these focus objects, so lest we fall into giggling jokes about “focusing my power” through such an object I’ll remind you of Harry Dresden’s shield bracelet as well as the silver pentacle he wears on a chain around his neck.

The necessity of the focusing object varies from system to system. In Potter’s world, the wand was a vital necessity. There were a few exceptions, but mostly the rule was: No wand, no spell. For others, it’s more of a tool than a crutch. Dresden can send out a lance of fire from his bare hand, but he can channel the power through the rod with greater ease and accuracy than he can through his own flesh.

Usually there is some magical affinity between the focus object and the wizard. In Potter’s case, we were often told that the wand chooses the wizard, and using another wizard’s wand is never terribly effective. In Dresden’s case, these focus objects were almost always made by Dresden himself, infused with the flavor of his personal power. In the case of Babylon 5’s technomages (which used a VERY different magical system), the mage’s staff was infused with an organic component in a once-in-a-lifetime moment, making the staff irreplaceable. All of this makes sense, of course, because these focus objects are acting as conduits of the wizards’ will. They must be attuned, or they simply wouldn’t work.

This, of course, leads to all kinds of havoc when the wizard is separated from his focus object(s). In Potter’s world, disarming your opponent essentially defeats them. Take away Dresden’s blasting rod, and he’s fighting with one hand tied behind his back. And woe is he who fails to take away poor old Gandalf’s “walking stick”.

Much like magical specialties, this kind of thing helps bring wizards back down to the mortal plane. Disarm him, and a wizard is like a cop without his gun or nightstick. He’s far from helpless, but at least now you’ll last longer than a snowball in hell.

So now let’s talk about the other kinds of magical items, ones you might even arm yourself with if you had to face one of these dreadful wizards. These all have magical powers and effects, but their magic is self-contained. They do not require you to do much of anything but sit back and enjoy (or curse) the ride.

The simplest of these are potions, and I see these pop up across all kinds of magical systems, from books to movies to games. They are the magical equivalent of a can of Red Bull, but in this case, they really can give you wings. They might also give you strength, invisibility, a different appearance, even luck. Potions can do some amazing things, but just like that Red Bull buzz, they don’t last forever, and when the magical caffeine wears off, the crash afterwards can be nasty. “I just don’t feel myself tonight – I spent all day being Severus Snape.” The rare exceptions to the temporary nature of potions are those that heal or poison. You don’t become reinjured (or resurrected) after a few hours. Those tend to be permanent.

Moving up the scale are the permanently-enchanted day-to-day objects. I remember back in my old D&D days, one of the first magical items we ever used was a stone of continual light. No more torches for us. Then there were the bags that were larger on the inside than the outside, cloaks to render our movement silent, magical super-glue, and so on. These were all pretty useful but hardly epic. These show up in fiction as well, from Dresden’s duster to Potter’s broom.

We also see a fair amount of magical weapons and magical armor. These seem to run the spectrum from those that are so well crafted that surely magic must have been used to create them all the way to those with powers to be invoked on command. Somewhere in between are those that are not only magically well-crafted, but they also make you stronger, healthier, or impervious to arrows. So, equipped with your spear and magic helmet, you can finally kill that pesky wabbit.

At the top end of the scale come the artifacts. These are singular objects of great power, crafted by ancient evil or the gods themselves. The One True Ring from Lord of the Rings is an excellent example of this. The Deathly Hallows from Potter’s universe are another, not to mention the Black Staff of Dresden’s universe or the terrible coins of Denarius. I always liked the Twelve Swords of Saberhagen’s fantasy world, forged by Vulcan himself and quenched in human flesh. The two things that seem to bind all of these artifacts together are their incredible powers and their fantastic and often dark origins. While they are often sought after, possessing one can often be a curse all on its own. These should appear in fiction only for very good reason, lest they be reduced to MacGuffins.

So whether your world is rich in magic or among the magical beggars, there are probably a few magical items rattling around in your wizard’s pocket. Were there any that I missed?

Pigblister’s School of Magic

Yeah, Hogwart’s is a better name, but today is the second in my series on magical systems, and I’m going to talk about schools of magic. Specifically I’m looking at “school” from two different directions: different specialties of magic, and the fact that most wizards aren’t born, they’re taught.

Explosions, Enchantments, and Elementals

In most magical fiction I’ve come across, magic is broken down into various types. The taxonomy is far from universal, and in many cases, it’s not even terribly strict, allowing different types of magic to be mixed together. Still, most magical systems have different types of magic, and while most wizards will learn at least a little of everything, many end up specializing in particular kinds of magic.

Probably the most common magical taxonomies are based on the effect. Categories in this organization would include things like curses, enchantments, transformations, healing, and so on. Dungeons and Dragons had a taxonomy like this, and the different classes at Hogwart’s suggests a similar structure in Harry Potter’s universe.

Probably the biggest advantage with this kind of taxonomy is that it’s easy to explain to the reader. A summoner can call forth a nasty demon, an illusionist can trick you into thinking he has, an alchemist can brew you up a potion of demon-resistance, and the healer can fix you up after you take the demon-lust instead.. Just the name of the specialist gives you some idea of what he can do. Telling the reader that our hero is a brown wizard doesn’t do much for us, nor do we know what to expect when an oak mage faces his nemesis, the great igneous wizard of the east.

But that doesn’t mean that all taxonomies are like that. Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series classified various practitioners into elemental schools: earth, air, fire, water. Wardens who could work with air tended to focus on the weather, but they could also suffocate you simply by moving all the oxygen away from your face. Earth wardens could mitigate earthquakes, but they could also bury you in a moment by liquefying the ground beneath you. Jim Butcher’s Furies series had a similar taxonomy where even the commoners had various elemental familiars made of earth, wood, water, etc.

Last week I mentioned a magic system based on eye color – though I still can’t remember the author/title – where magic came in different colors, and using that magic drained the appropriate color from the wizard’s iris. The actual breakdown of which effects went with which colors may not have been that different from the kind of taxonomies used at Hogwarts, but since you only had so much of a particular color in your iris, that determined what kind of magic you were going to do the most. With my eyes, I’d have definitely been a blue mage, not a brown one.

Charming Classes and Thaumatology Tutors

Choosing which specialty to pursue (or having fate choose it for you) brings up the fact that most magical skill is not innate. It is learned. Certainly, some have more talent than others, particularly when you consider niche talents, but this only makes sense. In our real lives, we all have varying degrees of talent for different skills. I have no talent for dance, but I took to mathematics like a dragon to fire. That doesn’t mean I was doing trig in the womb, though. I had to survive Mr. Wolhgehagen’s class for that. (And if ever I had Severus Snape for an instructor, he was it.)

So how, exactly, does a young boy with a talent for fighting dark wizards learn such skills? Well, I presume we all know the answer for Harry Potter. He went to Hogwart’s School for Wizardry and took part in all the usual English boarding school shenanigans, but with dragons. That’s a reasonable solution for a world in which magic is fairly common. Replace trigonometry with transformations, and you’ll be cranking out wizards faster than we make engineers.

But what about worlds where magic is not so common? One-on-one instruction is the answer there, typically in the form of master-apprentice relationships. Clean my cauldron, wash the wands, dust that demon, and if there’s time before dinner, I’ll teach you a little more about levitating the laundry. This kind of craftsman’s instruction has been around since the days of smiths, coopers, and cobblers. It doesn’t have the fun of boarding school, but it has its own charms, particularly in that master-apprentice relationship. Just ask Mickey.

But whether your young wizard is in a lecture hall or a laundry room, he has to learn the magic. That means trial and error. A lot of error. Sometimes I’m amazed wizards survive to adulthood at all. Trying to master a fireball without incinerating yourself reminds me of all those six-year-old Jedi wannabe’s playing with their light sabers, but as surely as the Old Republic was good at limb replacement, wizards must be reasonably good at healing burns.

At least, I say they need to learn through long and arduous trial and error. I say it fairly strongly, in fact, but I’m afraid that isn’t always the case. I’m setting up my soapbox over there, but I’m not getting on it quite yet, because apparently some wizards don’t need much practice at all. These are the chosen ones, destined for greatness. Their talent is almost a fully formed skill. All they need is a little direction and within days or weeks they’re throwing magic against ancient evil and powerful sorcerers. Yep, they’ve just got that knack for it.

Ahem… soapbox. I personally think this sucks the life out a magical story. Magic is outside of our experience in the ordinary world, and if our hero is moving from the ordinary world into the extraordinary world of a wizard, then that journey should not be an easy one. It’s wish fulfillment at its worse. I’m the special snowflake, and everyone is in awe of my natural abilities. Bullshit! Slap that kid around. Make him work for it. Make him bleed for it. Make him wish he’d never started this journey in the first place. Only then can he let loose with fiery destruction and have us readers feel like he earned that power. Only then does it feel righteous. Only then does it…

Hey, come back here with my soapbox!

Well, fortunately, these special snowflakes are rare in fiction. I’ve probably run into them in movies more often than books, simply because a movie can’t do a seven-year training montage.

Firing up the Illusion with Limits

Put these two aspects together, and you can have some fun. Ron never took to potions, while Hermione excelled with charms. Harry Dresden was never good with illusions, but he could burn through steel with hellfire. Dante never paid much attention to demonology, but she could speak to the dead – even the cremated. Yes, some of it can be natural talent, but maybe they just didn’t like that instructor back in school. Maybe their master was more of a diviner than a destructor, so poor Sally has been left knowing when and where the evil will be but can’t do much about it when she gets there.

It can put these would-be gods back in their place as mere mortals. Fantastic mortals, yes, but still average Joe’s like you or me, with things we just can’t do. It’s not a limit on their ability to invoke power, but it does limit the kinds of tools they carry with them into the story’s conflict. It let’s a schmuck like me arrive at the final battle and panic: “I didn’t know there’d be dancing!”

So, what did you learn in your years at Pigblister’s?

The Power of Magic

It’s time to put the F in SF/F. Well, the other F, you know… for Fantasy, and that means talking about magic. This is the first of a planned three-part series on magical systems, talking about the limits of power, the schools of magic, and magical objects. Today, we start with power.

Power is good, yes? More power is even better, right? Go far enough and you’ve got limitless power… and no story. With limitless power, you’re no longer talking about wizards or warlocks; you’re talking about gods. Usually their power is not limited by their abilities. Rather, their power is limited by rules and agreements with other gods. Those stories can be cool, but they’re about politics and godly drama, not magical power.

I want to start off with the Harry Potter universe, because it’s a particularly bad example of limitless power. Now, don’t get me wrong – I loved the Harry Potter books. They were great stories, and many of those characters still have comfy spots in my monkeysphere. But Rowling never addressed the limits of power, or at least not particularly well. Our heroes certainly put in the effort to learn their magical skills as well as struggled to find the emotional will required to cast particular spells, e.g. joy for a patronus or vicious hatred for various curses. As students, they were hardly without hurdles on their path towards magical power.

But once they developed the knack of it, they could go all day long until their wand hand got tired. Against mortals or purely physical obstructions, a skilled wizard was truly godlike. Only other wizards or magical creatures/constructs posed any real limits on what they could do. Now, I’m not saying that this made them bad stories, just that the magic system in those books did not impose any internal limits on a wizard’s power. Other than perhaps damning your eternal soul, casting a spell never cost you anything.

So, instead of that, I want to look at systems where there is a real cost to the use of magic and where the practitioner’s magical bank account has limited funds.

To start with, let’s talk about magical “energy”. I don’t think it can be quantized in convenient units like joules or kilowatt-hours, but many writers talk about magical energy. Sometimes they talk about it in terms of the magical energy they carry around with them, and sometimes it’s the magical energy of a place or object. Performing magic taps into that energy. In many games (and a few stories) this energy has been given the name of “mana”, but for the moment I’ll stick with calling it energy.

Let me give you some examples. One famous wizard created a ring that stores up energy every time the ring moves. He has to swing his arm a little harder with each step, but bit by bit that ring stores up more and more energy. Eventually, he can release that energy in a sudden powerful punch.

Another common energy soruce are ley lines, powerful currents in the land where magical energy flows. Stand over one of those, and you’re plugged in to the main magical power grid. Stand at the intersection of two or more ley lines, and you’re so wired up, it’s like grabbing hold of those big transformers at the power station. Great for working big magic, but maybe not so great for your health.

Going broader, energy can be drawn from storms, earthquakes, living things, emotions, and all manner of stuff in transition. As a writer, you pretty much have a blank check there. If something is happening (or happened a long time ago), you can find a way for your wizard to tap into it, but to get readers to believe it, you have to be consistent and rein it in with limits.

But with all that energy surging around, how can we possibly impose limits on our mortal wizards? I’ve seen three ways that work pretty well. The first is that for our wizardly heroes to use all this free energy, it has to flow through the wizard somehow, and how that happens can impose limits. How quickly can it flow? Maybe, like that little ring, it can only seep in over time, making our wizard a bit like a rechargeable battery – great for sprints, not so good for marathons. Or maybe it can flow like the electric current from a wall, and as someone who has experienced that particular joy, let me tell you that you can’t do it for very long. Even wizards who make a practice of crossing the streams can only take so much before mental and physical exhaustion leaves them quivering on the floor.

The second kind of limit is that of simple finite supply vs. near-infinite demand. Yes, you’re standing on the intersection of eight of the most powerful ley lines in the land, but that’s a castle you’re trying tear down. Big magic takes a lot of juice, and sometimes there just isn’t enough, or at the very least, there’s not enough right here right now. The smart wizard, of course, knows how to use that limited energy more efficiently and will cleverly dissolve the mortar between the stones at the base of that one corner tower. Oops, sorry about the collapsing walls!

The third kind of limit I’ve seen is to cut the wizard off from his or her power. That’s cheating a little because it is typically an opposing character taking action against the wizard, but I still consider it an internal limit because instead of meeting strength with strength, it’s robbing the wizard of his strength. I’ve usually seen this done in one of two ways, either putting some kind of boundary in place between the wizard and the surrounding sources of magical energy, or magically grounding him so that he can’t get the get the energy to flow through him. Water and iron frequently play roles in this, both as boundaries and grounding mechanisms.

Now, I want to return to mana for a moment because it leads to a very different kind of limit. First, I want to discard the gaming notion of mana, which is basically a short-term in-person energy store which is readily replenished as long as you sit down for a moment without catching on fire. That makes for a great game mechanic but is not so good for telling stories with hard choices. Instead, I want to talk about mana as a limited natural resource.

I first ran into the term “mana” in some fantasy stories written by Niven in the 1970’s. Similar to the magical energy I described above, it was all over the place, specifically in the land beneath your feet. However, unlike most other settings where the energy would build back up after being depleted, the mana in Niven’s fantasy world was not renewable. Once you spent it, it was gone forever.

He meant it as an allegory for the oil crisis of the 1970’s, but it was even harder on the practitioners of his world. While we can bring in oil from the far side of the globe, wizards could only tap the land nearby. Once a wizard had done magic in the same place for a few years, he had to move on to fresh lands. Worse, extreme uses of magic (duels or certain experiments) could drain the land completely, leaving dead zones where magic would not function ever again. This was not a limit for the day. This was a limit forever.

Chilling, no?

But then I heard about a limit even more frightening and personal. I didn’t catch the author’s name, but there was a series of books where the magic power came from the color of the wizard’s eyes, specifically their irises. Different colors powered different kinds of magic, and as you worked those particular spells, that color was slowly leeched out of your eye, spell by spell. And then one day, when your eyes had gone completely gray, your magic was gone, used up. You only got so much magic to begin with, and when it was gone, it was gone.

So considering what it cost you, maybe that fireball wasn’t worth it after all.

So, any other power limits I’ve missed?