My Top 10 Favorite Magic Systems in Fiction

I try to get a lot of variety in my reading, but fantasy is a genre that I come back to again and again – for escapism, for a good challenge, for a change in perspective… the reasons go on and on. This week’s Top 10 Tuesday (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) was a freebie, so I thought I would focus on some of my favorite magic systems inside fantasies.

Learned Magic

Obviously I am a huge reader, and I was always a bit of a nerd in school – above all else I really wanted to learn something new. Probably because of this trait, I love it when magic in fantasy books belongs to the scholars and the nerds – the ones that spend all their time studying and reading and learning. Here are a few books like that:


1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

While Celia and Marco don’t learn their magic from books necessarily, they do grow in their powers with experimentation and scholastic efforts, and I loved the comparison between their out-of-control powers, and their rather immature outlook. It was such a perfect example of “street smarts” vs. “book-learning”.

2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This is such a great example of the magic that I love. I really see myself in Mr. Norrell (yes, I know how terrible that sounds) and his love of books and learning and isolation. And even Jonathan Strange learns a lot of his magic by building upon the works of others.

3. Circe by Madeline Miller

The value of scholarship and hard work is really emphasized in this book – at one point, Circe has a chance to see the work of her sister and realizes that her own work and attention to detail truly makes her a better witch. It is her time in isolation that makes Circe so great, and while some have complained about the slow pace of this novel, I loved how the years stretched on while Circe was learning and growing.

4. Eternal Life by Dara Horn

The magic in this book is deemphasized, but in Eternal Life, the powers of eternal life are wielded by the priests – the scholars of that time. Magic is kept secret, away from the general population, and it seriously made me wish we saw a little more of the Temple.

Innate Magic

Some of the more classic fantasy novels have magicians who were simply born with their magical abilities – perhaps they have opportunities to develop those powers, but there is still a clear line between those who can perform magic and those who can’t. Here are some of my favorites:


5. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

I loved the magic system in A Darker Shade of Magic because it seemed to inventive. Magic is born of blood, and when Kell wants to work the most powerful magic, he has to include his own blood to make it work. I loved the way magic responded to some languages more than others, and the disconnect between the different Londons, and the black eye as a sign of Antari.

6. Everless by Sara Holland

In Everless, everyone has the power of time in their blood, but it is the other magic – the ability to affect time, to slow it down, stop it, or even reverse it – that was most interesting to me. Very few in the world have those powers, as they are only born to some. Sometimes in books characters can be a little too powerful, but I really liked how these powers were limited to time only – and how even with those limitations the characters with power had such a huge advantage.

7. Lirael by Garth Nix

In some ways, Lirael should belong in the first category – Lirael really develops her powers by practice and reading and studying. However, the Abhorsen powers are strictly limited to those of the Abhorsen line. This is one of my favorite worlds to return to again and again because I love the concept of the death, and the fight between good and evil, and I especially love Lirael, as a librarian, leaving the comfort of her home among the Clayr to kick some booty.

Otherworldly Magic

Some of my favorite reads as a child were of this category – a mostly realistic world with a mostly unknown magical realm that occasionally overlaps. Here are some of my favorites:

8. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

While this wasn’t one of my top pieces of fiction, I still loved the magic system in it: a school for children who were pulled into another magical world and have returned to their previous lives, and must find a way to adjust. So many great fantasy feature a character who falls into another world like this, and I loved the way the different worlds are described and categorized.

9. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

This is an older book, but was one of my absolute favorites as a child. The main character Gemma discovers a secret society of magic-users who primarily operate in an alternative world – and as she and her friends learn about the magic and attempt to manipulate this other world, dangers are creeping in. I loved the wish-fulfillment of the book, and especially loved the consequences that each of the characters must face.

10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

In some ways, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more like magical realism, but there is still a good deal with alternative realities and magical worlds that was entirely engrossing to me. I loved the way it was told as a memory for the main character – and the ways in which he had to revisit the horrors of his childhood.

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