With ‘The Fire Mages’ now out, I thought it might be interesting to look at the way magic is used in the book, and compare it with magic in ‘The Plains of Kallanash’. WARNING: slight spoiler for ‘The Fire Mages’ at the end.
‘The Fire Mages’ is set in the realm of Bennamore. Magic is invoked by the use of spellpages: a trained scribe writes out the words of a spell using magically imbued paper, pen and ink. A special script is used, with many flourishes and symbolic additions to each letter, which can subtly modify the spell, for instance to change the strength, to add constraints or expand it. The spellpage is then burnt in a crucible, with an invocation to the gods: “By the sun, bring light and fire and colour; by the moon, enable the darkness.” The Bennamorians believe that the gods are the final arbiters of whether a spell will work as intended or not.
The scribes who write the spells have no special magical talent themselves. Anyone can be trained to write spellpages, if they have a steady hand and can write accurately. Training takes place at a scribery, and there are five years of study, leading to five levels of scribe:
- common scribe (reading and writing for the common people, not allowed to scribe spellpages)
- transaction scribe (working for shopkeepers, inn managers and the like recording their transactions, simple spellpages)
- contract scribe (working for businesses recording larger deals, more complicated spellpages)
- personal scribe (working for and advising nobles)
- law scribe (advising on the law of the whole country)
In theory, anyone can become a scribe to any level. There is no barrier to entry, apart from a simple test of reading and writing ability. However, the tuition has to be paid for, and each year costs twice as much as the year before. This means that the fifth year costs sixteen times as much as the first year.
There is one stage beyond that of law scribe – mage! What’s the difference between a scribe, performing magic by writing spellpages, and a mage? A mage performs exactly the same spells, but without needing to scribe them on magically enhanced paper. He or she (yes, it could be either) uses a vessel filled with magical power to enable their magic, so they just need to speak the words of the spell. The most adept can simply think the words.
They can also use the vessel in other ways, for instance, to touch a sick or injured person, and see where healing is needed, instead of guessing from symptoms. They can imbue paper, ink and quills with magic for scribes to use. They can create shortcuts for spells, for instance, a single word which enables a whole spell, but these have to be prepared in advance. There used to be more powerful mages who could create new spells, but there have been none for a long time, and the power of spellpages generally is waning; many spells which used to be effective are now less reliable.
In Bennamore, this is the only kind of magic that is recognised, and any other form of magic is illegal.
In ‘The Plains of Kallanash’, set in a different part of the same world, there are no spellpages. In fact, over most of the plains, there is no magic at all. The Catastrophe which reshaped the world so devastated that area, that magic of any sort is suppressed. Only at the Ring, surrounding the Tower of Reception, is there any magical ability, but very few people are aware of it. Most don’t even believe in magic.
But there is magic, and it’s innate – everyone has a kind of magic, a ‘connection’ to something which gives them a special affinity with that something. For most people this works at such a low level that they’re not even aware of it. They might just think they happen to be rather good at growing apples or raising pigs or working wood. Some people are aware of their connection, but it isn’t strong enough for them to do anything with it. But a few people have a very strong connection, powerful enough for them to use it. If you have read ‘The Plains of Kallanash’, you will know who has a strong connection, and how they use it!
But anyone who’s read ‘The Fire Mages’ as well may be saying, “Wait a minute, this is the same world, but it has two different kinds of magic in it. How does that work?”
That’s a good question. The answer, as so often in the Brightmoon world, lies in the Catastrophe. When the powerful pre-Catastrophe mages started playing about with forces they couldn’t ultimately control, and realised that the only way to save the world was to destroy magic, naturally they immediately started looking for ways to allow magic to continue anyway. ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ shows the results of one attempt to do that. ‘The Fire Mages’ shows another.
The system of spellpages was created by mages before the Catastrophe. They ‘seeded’ the whole region where Bennamore now stands with a kind of magical power which could be easily transferred to objects – the vessels used by modern mages, and the paper, ink and quills used to create the spellpages. They invented the spells themselves, and the form of writing used to invoke them. And they made the whole system self-perpetuating, so that it doesn’t need anyone with native magical ability. Bennamorian scribes need have no innate talent for magic (although mages generally have some latent capability).
But what about Kyra? Here’s someone who clearly does have a strong innate magical ability, so how does that work?
Another good question, and here comes the slight spoiler. Even in Bennamore, everyone has a connection. That kind of magic is just a part of the human condition in the Brightmoon world, everyone has it, to a greater or lesser degree. But the only forms of magic allowed in Bennamore are the spellpages and the vessel-empowered mages. Any other kind is illegal, and the penalties severe, so those with connections keep very quiet about them.
But not all connections are to mushrooms or root vegetables or sparrows. Kyra’s connection is to magic itself. And that makes her very, very special. It’s a situation that can only arise when a child is born close to magic – in Bennamore, or near one of the many magical places pre-dating the Catastrophe – and even then, it happens very rarely. But when it does, it gives the recipient enormous power, which can be used for great good or great evil. And therein lies the story behind ‘The Fire Mages’.