Here's my latest blog entry on www.mdlachlan.com
Read it here to save yourself the click! It's on the nature of magic in Wolfsangel, as it came up in the SFFWorld review. I was really pleased with the review but - and this shows you're a real writer, just like a broken arm and no teeth shows you're a jump jockey - I honed in on the one part of the book SFF found a bit challenging - my magic system - so I thought I'd outline it here. It also contains a little on my writing process which is instinctual rather than intellectual. That last sentence is perhaps the most pretentious I've written in 20 years (I can recall the last big contender) but I'll let it stand anyway.
So, here we go, the nature of magic.
The defining feature of fantasy tends to be the presence of some sort of magic - from the low magic of George RR Martin, through Tolkien to the fireball-throwing fun of Wheel of Time.
The magic system in Wolfsangel bears little resemblance to any of these and, as far as I know, has not been employed in fantasy before. That's a bold claim and I stand to be corrected on it as, clearly, I haven't read every fantasy title ever written!
The reason that Wolfsangel's magic is a little different, I think, is that my interest in magic doesn't really arise from fantasy literature at all. Ever since I was very young I was always fascinated by magic and, from about aged nine, was taking books out of the library such as 'A History of Witchcraft in England' and other stuff by Dion Fortune and such like.
I'd read these things under my blankets with a torch, and scare myself daft with tales of witch bottles, people vomiting pins and the tortures of the witch finders.
I say all this because what I'm about to write makes it sound like I sat down and thought 'hmmm, let's invent a new and terrifying system of magic for my next book. What would that look like?'
In fact, I just started writing and found that the magical system pretty much wrote itself. This idea of magic was inside me and it just popped out. Surprisingly, what did pop out is coherent and - once you've accepted its initial premise - logical. That's part of the mystery of the creative process as I can honestly say I had no idea what the magic system would be until I came to describe the character of the witch.
So what is the magic system in Wolfsangel? Well it stems from the central idea that magic costs. This is an idea you see in most real world magical traditions (I know that's a weird concept but you know what I mean) - but it's one that's absent from much - though not all - fantasy writing.
Ursula Le Guin (an early favourite of mine) contains this idea but a great deal of fantasy just involves someone having a power, using it and suffering little personal cost. The Dungeons and Dragons mode of magic, so to speak.
Ascetics of real world cultures, though, undergo privation and even torture to access their magical insights and powers. Shamans take to sweat lodges, hermits undergo wilderness ordeals, Native American magicians stake themselves down in the desert, yogis starve or are buried alive.
This tradition is very present in Norse magic. In the Edda - the collection of 13th century Icelandic poems and myths from which we get our knowldedge of Norse myth , Odin goes to the well of Mimir - whose waters impart knowledge - and gives his eye to drink from them. The Poetic Edda also says:
'I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin
myself to myself
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run
No bread did they give me nor drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.'
This is a very evocative passage. Many of its ideas seeped into Wolfsangel, though I can't claim to have consciously put them in. I love the idea of the god sacrificing himself to himself. I wonder if this was in the original myth. The Edda were written by Christians and this is clearly a very Christian idea.
No matter, it's a good one and I absorbed it. So Odin mutilates himself, hangs and is pierced by a spear to take up the magical symbols - the runes.
This then, is the idea of magic that is in Wolfsangel - a magic of transgression. The sorcerer does something so painful, abhorent or gruelling that her (in Wolfsangel, as in Norse myth, magic is overwhelmingly the province of women, Odin apart) normal mind recoils, enabling the magical self to appear through the veil of daily reality. My sorcerers are drained by this whole process, physically ravaged.
I have a conception of the runes of Norse mythology too - the magical symbols used for spell casting. I won't say too much about them because I don't want to spoil the book. However, they are not inert ingredients and those who use them pay a high price to do so.
The other thing I took from my early reading is that magic is disturbing. I really tried to get that in to Wolfsangel, the idea that the forces involved are alien and terrifying. The images that came to me while I was writing the book were the bog bodies, the woodcuts of the witch trial period (I know they're an anachronism but they set a certain mental tone), half remembered stuff about Native American pain rituals, and illustrations like this. I wanted to get something that recreated the feeling I had when I read those books on witchcraft, a mixture of fascination and horror.
So I hope that explains a little of the foundation of my magic system. Many of the rituals and magical practices my witches and magicians subject themselves to are so extreme that they are gateways to madness. Again, this ties in neatly with the Norse conception of Odin - God of magic, madness, poetry, the hanged and the slain. He suffered to gain his magic powers at the well of Mimir. My magicians must do the same if they want to share in his magical abilities.