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Wizards v. Jedi has always been a topic of debate in my family. We can spend hours comparing the merit of an all-powerful wand to the appeal of a Jedi’s mysticism and lightsaber. In some stories, magical abilities are as entrenched in society as education or art. In other tales, they mark their owners as unique, sometimes even responsible for the well-being of others. Alluring though magic may be, it sometimes leaves characters feeling resentful or ostracized, either because they’re too dangerous or too different to belong.
Still, it’s fun to imagine what you would do if you acquired such prowess. The following sf and fantasy books—some epic, some quaint—offer even more enviable options for us to weigh, such as elemental manipulation or the capacity to heal. So, what will it be: Wand or lightsaber? Immortality or Earthsong? (See Whispers of Shadow & Flame below.)
The Ferryman Institute. By Colin Gigl. 2016. Gallery.
An immortal ferryman, Charlie escorts people to their deaths; in fact, he is famous for his 250-year record of helping spirits reach the afterlife. As he falls into depression about his thankless job, however, he discovers that he has the chance to prevent a death. When he stops Alice from committing suicide, both he and Alice find themselves on the run from other ferrymen, resulting in a funny yet poignant supernatural fairy tale.
How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse. By K. Eason. 2019. DAW.
In this intergalactic take on Sleeping Beauty, a spurned fairy does not curse Rory Thorne with eternal sleep but, rather, gifts her with the ability to see through façades. Not only can Rory tell when someone is lying, but she can also “hex” computers—a combination of magic and hacking. What follows is a clever space adventure in which Rory uses her wits to thwart a greedy regent who is trying to usurp the throne.
The Illustrated Man. By Ray Bradbury. 1951. Doubleday.
An unnamed narrator meets a former carnival freak who is covered in moving tattoos that reveal the future. The designs, visual short stories, show the influence of technology on human psychology. Meanwhile, the framework narrative warns of the dangers of prophecy, storytelling, and vivid imaginations, especially when the narrator sees his own murder play out on the flesh before him. The tattoos leave the Illustrated Man feeling lonely and enraged, yet his augeries will continue to tempt the people he meets.
Kingdom of Copper. By S. A. Chakraborty. 2019. HarperCollins.
The second title in Chakraborty’s fantasy trilogy, following The City of Brass (2017), centers around three dynamic characters who possess incredible abilities, even amongst the world of djinn: Nahri, the last of her kind, can heal the sick; Dara, an already impressive daeva, learns to shapeshift; and Ali, a prince, must adapt to his new influence over water. See how their powers intersect in this epic tale of palace politics and class warfare.
Shades of Milk and Honey. By Mary Robinette Kowal. 2010. Tor.
When you picture the ladies in a Jane Austen novel, you might imagine them partaking in the feminine arts of needlepoint or piano forte. In Kowal’s Glamour History series, they can also weave ether into masks, tableaus, or art pieces. The first in this series follows Jane, a talented glamourist, and her beautiful sister as they attract the attentions of eligible suitors.
Whispers of Shadow & Flame. By L. Penelope. 2019. St. Martin’s.
Darvyn, the most powerful Earthsinger in generations, can heal wounds and turns deserts into flowering fields. Kyara possesses a rare Nethersong ability, which brings death. Opposites attract when the two meet on either side of a war, and Kyara, an assassin bound to the True Father through blood magic, must learn to overcome her deadly power when it threatens to harm Darvyn.
The Wise Man’s Fear. By Patrick Rothfuss. 2011. DAW.
Rothfuss utilizes a hard-magic system in his Kingkiller Chronicle series, in which “sympathy,” like physical energy, can be transferred, especially when a sympathist forms a link between similar objects. In this installment, Kvothe leaves University after a rivalry with a fellow student leads to a tuition he cannot afford. He takes his education into the real world, where his magic helps him thrive in court, on the road as a mercenary, and even in the realm of the Fae.
Biz Hyzy works magic as an editorial assistant at Booklist, and beyond.
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