A fun adventure that satirises fantasy tropes in the style of Terry Pratchett.
Ambit Afterman is the Chosen One. Born with the mark of the silver bellflower on his palm and given a magical spear, he is the one whose coming the prophecy foretold.
Unfortunately, he would much rather drink beer and get laid - destiny can go fuck itself.
Together with his demon friend Snarl, Ambit sets out on a mighty quest - to make sure the prophecy doesn't come true, and avoid doing anything heroic under any circumstances. Along the way he will make polite conversation with demons, not deliver any great speeches, not train with the wise monks, and weasel his way out of adventure and into the nearest pub. But there may just be time to have cheap sex with the beautiful princess along the way.
Luckily the stretch of demon country didn’t go too much further. Ambit kept following the river, and by evening he could see green up ahead. Grass started to peek through the stone, and after a while the land gradually flowed back into trees and plants, all of them festooned with flowers. There was some fruit as well, and Ambit picked a good meal’s worth of it and sat down under a tree to eat.
As for Snarl, several times along the way through demon country she had stopped to dig in crevices and other places, and had made a meal of the rocks she dug up. At one point she had even found a rough diamond, which she picked up with a rasp of triumph and carried with her for the rest of the walk – resting it between the spikes on her back.
‘Saving it for a special occasion?’ Ambit asked her now, watching her put it down and caress it with her claws.
Snarl looked up at him, her red eyes shining. ‘Something this fine you have to savour, otherwise it’s not special.’
Ambit dug in his pack for a roll of leather strips, and started to restrap the spear, carefully covering it from the butt to just behind the point. ‘You’re right about that,’ he said. ‘I’m still saving that bit of cheese I picked up in Fessifern. It’s probably even mouldier now than it was then.’
‘Disgusting,’ said Snarl.
‘You’re right. I’ll have to toast it if it’s too far gone,’ said Ambit. He finished covering the spear, and then put it aside while he dug out his map. It had been drawn on another roll of leather, and thanks to spending so much time in his pack it looked even older than it was. He untied the string holding it together, and a pungent odour wafted out, making Snarl cringe.
Ambit sniffed cautiously, and peeled the last curl of leather apart. Something green and furry fell out onto the grass, and he picked it up. ‘Wow, I was right.’
Snarl watched him buff the lump of cheese on his shirt. ‘You used the map for that?’
‘It’s waterproof, isn’t it?’ said Ambit. ‘Now, let’s see where we’re at.’ He pinned the map down with his free hand and inspected it, absent-mindedly biting into the cheese.
Snarl came over to look. ‘Which river are we by?’
‘That one,’ said Ambit, pointing to a spot which had been handily marked out for them by a greasy cheese stain. ‘We’re here at the edge of this bit of demon country – map shows we just left this area around one of the Nine Mountains – in Seberry, and the river should take us right into the valley where those monks live. Let me see if I can work it out.’ He worked his way around the map, using his finger to measure distances, and then nodded. ‘If we keep up the pace, we should get to the monastery around lunchtime tomorrow.’
‘Finally,’ said Snarl.
‘Maybe you can eat your diamond there, make a celebration of it,’ said Ambit.
‘Only if it’s good news,’ said Snarl.
‘It’d better be after all this,’ said Ambit. He rolled the map up and put it away, stifling a yawn. ‘But first we get to do my third favourite thing and get some sleep.’
‘We’re just going to make camp here?’ asked Snarl.
Ambit lay back against the tree. ‘It’s too far to the nearest village, and knowing my luck there’ll be another old coot going on about chosen ones. I’ll take the chance of getting rained on over that any day.’
‘And I won’t have to hide,’ said Snarl. She looked skyward. ‘It had better not rain.’
‘Yeah, here’s hoping,’ Ambit said sleepily.
Snarl left him where he was and waddled over to the next tree along. She wandered back and forth for a while, growling and muttering to herself, until she found a good spot and started to dig. The dirt steamed as she shovelled it aside with her claws, and in very little time she had disappeared underground. A while later she came into view again, squatting just inside her burrow and peering out for any sign of trouble.
Ambit, meanwhile, stayed comfortably stretched out on the grass with the spear still in his hand. Every now and then he opened one eye partway, but eventually he gave that up and went to sleep.
I love magic. When I was a kid I used to dream about having it (didn’t we all? Mind you, I also wanted to be a dinosaur. So I could murder all my bullies). You could argue that you can’t have a fantasy book without magic of one kind or another – in fact, when asked what the difference was between sci fi and fantasy, I flippantly replied that “sci fi explains away impossible things with junk science. Fantasy uses magic for the same purpose”. I was mostly kidding, but there is something to be discussed here, and that’s the mistake of using magic to solve problems in your story.
By that I mean something like the following scenario: Hero “Gary Stu” Protagonist is surrounded by Evil Minions, with no chance of escape! Oh no! But wait – suddenly he has magic, and it just turned all the Minions into dust! Whew, we wouldn’t have wanted to see him save his own skin with skill, luck or cunning. That would be boring. More importantly, it would be too hard to write, and who needs all that noise? This beer won’t drink itself, you know!
Joking aside, all too often magic is used as a Deus Ex Machina whenever an author writes herself into a corner (Christopher Paolini is particularly guilty of this one). Any time it would be hard to solve a problem, the temptation arises: can they just use magic to get out of this one? It would be so much easier to write, plus it would be cool!™ Yes, magic encourages author laziness. I’m sure I’ve used magic as a shortcut myself more than once. Probably every fantasy author has succumbed to the temptation at least once (or twice, or fifty times per book in some cases).
There’s nothing wrong with having magic. It’s often the most fun and exciting part of a book. But what you absolutely have to do is put limits on it. Make it clear what magic can and cannot do. If there are no apparent limits, not only do you lose a lot of the tension, but readers will constantly be saying “well why don’t they just use magic for that?”. Magic can even be a liability that actually makes the situation worse, which is a great way to make a story more exciting.
For example, in The Drachengott magic is quite powerful, but also dangerous. Using too much of it can kill you very easily. It can be used to heal, but people usually don’t do that unless it’s a life or death situation, because the energy required can kill the caster. And magic can’t protect you from conventional weapons as a general rule. I’m sure this is pretty similar to what other people have written.
In another project of mine, which hasn’t been sent to the publishers yet, magic is sentient. It’s just about all-powerful, but it has a mind and a will of its own, and in order to use it to its full potential you have to undergo a transformation into another order of being – a process which splits your mind in two, turns you savage and dangerous, and could well drive you raving mad.
In the Cymrian Saga, magic exists but humans can’t use it. They’re not adapted for it. Griffins are, and refuse to share much information about how it works. Eventually humans start trying to use technology to harness magic for their own purposes, but it ends badly. And the griffins rarely use their own magic, because it’s extremely risky and damages their long-term health if used too often.
The Ultimate Dragon Saga trilogy by Graham Edwards has a very interesting take on magic. In that series, some of the dragon characters can access something called the Realm – a bizarre parallel universe. “Charmed” dragons can reach into the Realm and pull out spells and creatures to use for their own purposes. They can even use the Realm to teleport from place to place. But not all dragons can use magic, and when the story begins the Realm is beginning to pull away from the real world, driving Charmed dragons insane and slowly leaching all the magic out of the world. Sooner or later, nobody will be able to use magic at all. Rogue magic also has bizarre and dangerous effects on the real world when it breaks through on its own – creating places where no dragon should risk going, where an ordinary patch of ground might swallow them up in an instant (that bit really freaked me out).
Some fantasy novels, of course, have very little magic – or no magic at all. A Song of Ice and Fire does have some supernatural elements to it (dragons being the obvious one), but they’re generally subtle and rarely seen, and they never solve anyone’s problems. When people get their hands on any kind of magic – or dragons – they generally use it to kill other people for their own political gain (This is G.R.R.M – what else did you expect?).
When designing your magic system, as well as setting definite limits on what it can do, you should also decide how much of its inner workings you should reveal. Some works explain every detail, which isn’t always a good idea – too much exposition gets boring fast, and you can end up creating plot holes. Others, such as the Harry Potter series, leave it vague. We don’t know where magic “comes from” in Harry Potter – it’s just there. Nor are we told whether magic is all-powerful, how many spells exist, or what makes one wizard more powerful than another. But it works anyway, because J.K.Rowling kept it internally consistent, and presented it in such a way that the reader doesn’t feel the need to ask those questions. I know I didn’t.
However, what you reveal to the reader and what you actually know yourself are two different things. The author should always know more than they reveal. I once read an interview with an author who kept answering questions about his world with “no comment”. He claimed it was to prevent spoilers, but by about the sixth or seventh time this happened it started to feel as if “no comment” really meant “I don’t know, because I never bothered to work that out”. This is a major mistake. If you’re not going to reveal everything about how your magic works, you at least must know yourself. You have to be able to know in advance what would or would not work in a given situation, or you’ll end up with plot holes and inconsistencies. This goes for the entire world and character backstories as well, come to that. It’s amazing how easily readers can tell what you’re choosing to reveal when it’s relevant, and what you just pulled out of your backside when it was convenient.
Ultimately, what you choose to do with your magic system is up to you. But you should avoid making it too powerful, and absolutely don’t use it as a quick plot fix-it device. You might get away with it once, but pretty soon readers will catch on and start to get annoyed with you. And for the love of gods, think it through.
Also, a final thought: magic can be used for practical purposes. It doesn’t have to be just for exciting duels and mighty battles (though those are awesome). I was rather pleased with myself when I wrote a scene in The Drachengott series in which we see a city of magic users. One man is in the marketplace, using magic to create blocks of ice to sell, and someone else uses magic to reshape a bit of metal into a fork while the customer waits. And you just know you’d do that yourself if you could, right? I know I’d use magic to make my day job easier if I had it. I’m having difficulty imagining a “catalogue this document” spell, though.
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K.J. Taylor was born in Australia in 1986 and attended Radford College and the University of Canberra, where she returned to obtain a Master of Information Studies in 2012. She currently works as an archivist.
She published her first work, The Land of Bad Fantasy, through Scholastic when she was just 18, and HarperVoyager went on to publish The Dark Griffin in Australia and New Zealand five years later. The Griffin's Flight and The Griffin's War followed in the same year, and were released in America and Canada in 2011. The Shadow's Heir, The Shadowed Throne and The Shadow's Heart have now joined them in both Australia and the US.