This week I finished editing the first major magic/action sequence in my colonial fantasy novel. The bones of the scene were excellent (my sister wrote the first draft of it), so I was mostly going through to tighten up the pacing, clarify the point of view, and fill out some missing transitions.
Unlike the stories I wrote in my teens and early twenties, which were full of dragons and fire spells and overpowered wizards, I’ve been working in fairly magic-lite worlds more recently. My alternate history World War II novel has zombies, for example, but they aren’t flashy or pretty, and the “magic system” only works against the protagonists instead of for them. The zombie bacteria also has sinister origins and clearly defined rules, so it is rarely surprising and leads readers straight back to real atrocities during World War II rather than giving readers an escape from reality.
The other book I’ve worked on in the past couple of years is a portal fantasy, so the magic works in more traditional, almost fairy-tale ways. The magic is wondrous to the main character; dragons and monsters roam the world; inexplicable good things happen that can only be attributed to magic. But the magic is in the world and never in the people. There are no wizards, no spells, no fireballs, nothing splashy like Dumbledore and Voldemort dueling in the Ministry for Magic.
Somewhere in the middle of editing my portal fantasy, I remember texting my brother: “I kinda miss working on trashy high fantasy.”
So it was exciting and strange, yet familiar, to edit through a traditional fantasy action sequence this week, complete with ghosts and shape-shifters, pistols and cutlasses, magical animals and spirit light, saints and goddesses. I plugged in a trusty playlist of suspenseful music (heavy on Steven Price’s soundtrack from Gravity) and worked as closely as I could on visual spectacle, movement, and clarity, trying to walk that line so it’s tight without being choppy, in the moment without being confusing, detailed without getting bogged down.
Apart from a few high-drama action scenes, though, most of the magic in my pirate fantasy novel is more in line with my recent magic-lite work. A lot of the magic is more “real world,” adjacent to things that happen (or people claim happen) in our world. One of the characters, a priest, speaks with saints and ghosts or occasionally foresees future events. The magic of one of the native people groups is interwoven with the social and religious practices of the tribe, including magical rituals and sacrifice. Different regional saints and gods patronize and protect the local people.
I can’t say that I definitely enjoy working with one type of magic system better than another. Lighter magic systems demand that more of the plot stems from the characters and their mundane problems and desires, but heavier magic systems often come with more spectacle and excitement. I suppose that’s why I waffle back and forth from book to book.