There oughta be a law – or why you can’t be a rebel when you’re the boss!

Well, I could rant yet again about yet another group of spineless authors demanding that Amazon violate customer trust and generally make it completely unsafe to review at all, just to protect their fee fees, but constant readers already know my views. These idiots need to grow some stones and realise that plenty of writers have actually died for their art. When you’re executed, threatened with death and have several people involved with publishing your book killed or shot, or imprisoned just for writing what you believe, then that’s ‘criticism’ that’s dangerous to your career.

The rest of it is just annoying crap to be ignored (or mocked in private) and goes with the territory. Just stop it.

No, what I want to talk about is world building and magic and why it’s important not to violate the rules.

There are many good stories using magic as a given in the universe created by the writer. There are many ways to do it too. You can have magic as an underground reality which is known to a select few who then fight a hidden battle with the horrors unleased thereby – this applies to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rowling’s Harry Potter books, KJ Charles’ A Charm of Magpie stories, Frank Tuttle’s Markhat novels, and to a recent m/m series I read but which I won’t name because I’m going to be scathing about it. You can have magic as mundane and common as electricity, treated as technology almost and subject to scientific investigation. This is done for comedic/satiric effect in Pratchett’s Discworld stories, and (mostly) seriously in Tuttle’s All the Paths of Shadow. You can also have fraudulent magic, as in the Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes movie – what looks to be like sinister, paranormal powers is nothing but conjuring and trickery.

You can treat magic as if it’s a science, or science which looks magical (as in Dr Who – the magic wand has become a sonic screwdriver – or in the X-Men universe). You can make your magic be quasireligious in origin (the Supernatural TV series, Buffy), alien (X Files), ‘genetic’ (the X Men, or my own paranormal series), or simply just a fact of life like gravity, which is the approach that Pratchett and Tuttle both take.

But in all these varied approaches, the writer has to follow the laws of her own universe. If your magic takes things like Egyptian curses, medieval relics, and Mayan crystal skulls deadly seriously, then you can’t have your central characters be authentic atheists or allow anyone to point out the essential inconsistency of taking all these disparate belief systems as real. Buffy came as close as it’s possible to do by failing to mention the Abrahamaic deity at all in the series (other than in curses), though ‘pagan’ deities were frequently named. By invoking the central figure of western Judeo-Christianity specifically, the writers would have immediately highlighted the incompatibility of all these powerful spells and pagan objects with mainstream religion, and made people wonder how people who wear crosses and use them against vampires can also be fighting animated South American mummies. Belief must be capable of being suspended.

If your magic is science, then you must provide a ‘scientic’ explanation for superpowers and paranormal events. You can’t cop out and claim ‘God did it’ when your Man of Steel can fly, or your wimpy asthmatic becomes Captain America. No, there has to be a superserum, a planet with ayello sun, a secret cabal of scientists working on strange and horrifying experiments, a radioactive fly or spider, and so on. It’s either ‘science’ (however ridiculous) or it’s magical. You can’t have both. Paranormal superhuman and supernatural activity will all have an origin which purports to be investigatable, repeatable, understandable. (The joke in the Discworld is that magic is treated as if it’s also investigatable at the Unseen University and by Leonard da Quirm.)

The important thing is that there is a logic to the implausible goings-on, and that logic must not be violated by the writer.

So, let’s come back to that unnamed m/m series. The first book had that venerable horror plot, the raising of “gharstely creatures from before the Dawna Time” (as Gaspode the wonder dog described it), cue potential world destruction, lone heroes fighting against insurmountable odds yadda yadda. One of our heroes has magical powers, not because he has innate magical ability (because that is contrary to the logic of this universe), but because he has the right book of spells. In this world, anyone can have magical power so long as they say the right words, possess the right talisman or object, do the right rituals.

Okay, well and good and so far, so enjoyable (although somewhat inferior to the Charm of Magpie series which it resembles in many ways.)

Onto the second books whose plot can be summarised as “the attack of the killer flying prawns from outer space.”

Yes, real aliens. Which are defeated by magic using spells from our educated hero’s trusty book.

What? No no no.

You can’t have ‘real’ magic and ‘real’ aliens. Either ‘science’ and aliens are behind the apparent magic, or the magic is real and science is limited to what is plausible in the book’s time and place (which is a nineteenth century version of Sunnydale – that is, a boring pleasant town with an implausibly important antiquities museum and comprehensive library with scholars on tap, and an equally implausible number of strange deaths and horrible happenings). In the Buffy verse, you could have cyborgs and robots because they had a human origin, human inventors. Warren built the Buffy bot using real world technology – he didn’t animate it using a spell or a talisman, though he was capable of powerful magic. Dr Walsh makes Adam using science and medicine which apparently adhere (however unrealistically) to real world laws. He’s a modern Frankenstein’s monster, not Klaatu (or Kal-El, for that matter.) All Buffy’s adversaries come from this planet, and no other.

But this unnamed m/m series suddenly rips us out of the carefully constructed world of the first book and plonks down into Cowboys & Aliens territory. The aliens are real, their heinous deeds are scientific, their powers are nor paranormal but simply a product of their biology and superior technology. The author asks us not to suspend just one kind of disbelief, she asks us to suspend two – and at this point, the whole things comes crashing down and the constant reader is left going “What the fuck just happened there?”

The third book goes back to the “gharstely creatures” scenario, complete with a new set of spells and magical powers conveniently imbued in our woobie narator. There are two woobies. Woobies do not make a fantasy or science fiction story plausible, sorry.

Look, when you’re a writer, you can do anything you damn well please in your own universe. You want to have people all the same colour – green – go for it. You want them to travel by means of teleportation by standing in a chimney or a toilet (Thank you RIPD for that charming image, by the way), no one will stop you. But you make the laws yourself, so breaking them is cheating.

And also no damn fun. Because making rules and then playing within them, however hard that makes it for your characters, is what writing is all about, and what the readers/viewers are there for. Buffy can’t have sex with Angel, or he’ll become Angelus. Rogue can’t touch the man she loves or he’ll die. Atheists have the life expectancy of a chocolate teapot in the Discworld, so not believing in the many gods involves a bit of ingenuity, and Sam Vimes is not a magician and hates magic, so you can’t have him whipping out a spell to defeat the dragon because that’s not Vimes.

And so on.

I could rant about the unnamed series a bit more – the repetitive sex scenes, the unnecessarily and endless self-denigration by both male leads, the overly convenient spell book, and the strangely colourless setting – but I won’t. I ‘bought’ the first one for free, so I spent nothing but time on it, and it was enjoyable enough. The second book is where the iPad hit the wall (metaphorically, of course.) Which is sad, because the author has linked her universe in one crossover story with the far better Magpie verse by KJ Charles, and Charles has the kind of unerring ability with world building from which the other author could and should learn from. Perhaps she will.

But only if she understands not all rules are made to be broken.

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4 Responses to There oughta be a law – or why you can’t be a rebel when you’re the boss!

  1. Sirius says:

    OOOO, I love the books with magic, and I completely agree about rules how magic works – it should be consistent. I do wonder though what series you reference so I could avoid it – because when I was reading I thought about one trilogy I was looking at and almost bought, but when you said crossover with KJ Charles’ and I only know one author she did cross over with and her series (both of them ) have more than three books already (I think at least?). Would it be okay if I email you to ask the title?

    • Ann says:

      I think you’re thinking of the same series, but I’ve emailed you. If you read the books, I’d be interested to know what you think. They certainly don’t *suck*.

  2. Merrian says:

    I’ve read the unnamed series skipping through the 3rd book cos my interest drifted and didn’t let me stick with it. So I agree they don’t suck but that isn’t a recommendation either. KJ’s books are a whole different level of invention and intrigue and engaged me very intently in a way that these nice stories didn’t. I think of KJ as writing oil paintings and this author watercolours.

    I liked the unnamed series playing with the Cthulhu (my spell checker knows how to spell Cthulhu when I don’t; Geeks rule!) mythos which the space bugs and the Sea God of third book arise from. I also saw the series attempting to take a place and time and a uniquely American notion of power and magic combined with the rise of new industry oligarchs and the worldviews of that time of eastern seaboard America. I liked that you couldn’t interchange Widdershins with a similar seaside town in England. It’s just that the leads don’t take a hold of me like Crane and Stephen or Feximal and Caldwall do and that is what I read for.

    • Ann says:

      Those are all good points, and I’ll also say the author’s research is very thorough. But you’re right about the leads. I just wish the narrator would grow and stay grown, instead of regressing to woobiehood every second page.

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