I’ll admit it: I have a problem with magic. Not so much writing it, thankfully, since I write fantasy novels for a living. In fact, the six books in my Spellslinger books delve into all kinds of elaborate magic systems and various types of mages.
Since its launch a few years ago, the series has done nicely around the world, been translated into more than a dozen languages and been optioned for television. So, I’m the last person who should be complaining about the prevalence of wizards in fantasy literature, and yet, when I sat down to write The Malevolent Seven a few years ago, I found myself treading down unfamiliar magical paths.
The False Meritocracy of Magic
Fantasy wizards are typically portrayed as either wise mentors or cunning villains. They can be noble, tyrannical, self-sacrificing or scheming, but they are always somehow grand and awe-inspiring. There are exceptions, of course: the comic relief bumbler or the earnest young mage who must first find their inner strength before unleashing their magical potential. It’s probably that last one that troubles me most: the notion that magical ability is a function of inner strength, as if our fantasy worlds were all mystical meritocracies. Not only are wizards more gifted than the rest of us, they’re also somehow better people – even the evil ones – because you couldn’t possibly wield all that power without also being brilliant and strong-willed.
In our own world, we have loads of exceptional people: breathtakingly talented artists, physically stunning athletes and billionaire entrepreneurs just to name a few.
The idea that they’re all inherently stronger-willed or emotionally superior to the rest of us seems laughable given the plethora of self-destructive artists, athletes who make terrible personal choices and ultra-billionaires who never stop finding ways to screw up everyone else’s lives.
If anything, the truly gifted seem emotionally impaired by those same gifts – as if the ones who enjoy fulfilling lives are doing so despite the attributes the rest of us covet. One might almost conclude that artistic talent comes with a tendency towards obsession, athletic ability paired with a competitiveness that refuses to restrict itself to the football field or basketball court, and the knack for making billions of dollars . . . well, I think we all have a sense of what issues that tends to bring.
The Disabling Consequences of Power
With The Malevolent Seven, I decided that each type of magic would come with its own emotional disability – a price that was not only commensurate with the power one gained but which was a natural consequence of possessing that power.
Corrigan, my tempestoral mage whose spells that in minutes can tear down castle walls that took decades to build, can’t help but see life as transient; everything blows up sooner or later, so what’s the point in building a life for yourself?
Galass, whose sanguinist magic attunes her to the flow life itself, can barely stop herself from drawing the blood out of those around her just to watch it dance.
Shame, an angelic being, can alter her shape any way she wishes, yet, in lacking any sense of permanence, it’s the desires of others that constantly transfigure her.
Even the handsome, dashing Aradeus can’t hold back the compulsion to embody what he perceives as the inherent nobility of the species to which his totemic magic attunes him. And he’s a rat mage.
As for Cade Ombra, the book’s protagonist, he may be the most emotionally troubled of all, convinced that his reliance on Infernal spells means that he’s beyond redemption. Cade’s problem isn’t that he thinks his soul is in jeopardy, it’s that he believes that any attempt at atonement is doomed from the start.
To be a wizard, or wonderist as they’re called in the world of The Malevolent Seven, is to be so defined by one’s magical attunement that the things most of us take for granted – our ability to form relationships, deal with conflict without actually blowing people up, learn to appreciate ourselves as we are – gradually disappear.
The Joys of Writing Messed-Up Mages
You might think writing about emotionally and morally compromised wizards would be a depressing affair, but it turned out to be outrageously fun and unexpectedly poignant.
Pairing Corrigan’s amoral conviction that he’s just as decent as everyone else with Cade’s perpetual certainty that he’s becoming a worse and worse person made for one of the most unusual friendships I’ve ever written. In fact, watching this entire misfit band of seven wonderists struggle to keep from murdering one another even as everyone else is trying to kill them reminded me that my favourite heroes are neither flawless nor do they achieve greatness by overcoming their flaws; the heroes I root for are the screw-ups who keep trying even when the rest of the world is convinced they can never change.
And you know what? Maybe they never do change. But when you find just the right group of fellow screw-ups to have your back, well, let’s just say that unusual friendships bestow their own kind of magic.
The Malevolent Seven by Sebastien de Castell is published by Jo Fletcher Books on 11th May.