Last time we spoke, dear friends, it was to introduce you to the many worlds of Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy writer extraordinaire, whose works have garnered him praise for being both deeply engaging and fun; delving into complex philosophical questions without sacrificing the thrills and excitement of action-packed adventure. And while this balance has always been a staple of Sanderson’s writing, his true calling card is his inventiveness, love of, and creative implementation of intricate magic systems across different worlds.
Sanderson’s magic systems all follow a similar structure of net gain, net loss, and equilibrium, according to their own natural laws (which are generally similar to environmental, scientific, and physical laws of our world). Sanderson has said before that he has a working theory of magical law in his writing, and it can be seen in the systems below, which all (for the most part) follow a loose collection of principles involving distinct power sources and the processes by which power is gained, power is lost, and/or balance can be reached between the two.
Below we’ll cover just a few of the many different magical systems and terms that Sanderson has employed in his writing—the list isn’t meant to be exhaustive by any means, but the following concepts will give readers a great sense of what sort of trouble Sanderson can get up to when handling a complex system of magic.
The first magical term of note and possibly the most important, Investiture is the guiding principle behind all of the magic systems within the Cosmere, the shared universe in which many of Sanderson’s epic fantasy novels and series take place. Over the course of his Cosmere books, the term Investiture has begun to crop up, often mentioned by powerful, ancient characters who generally seem to know a lot more about the workings of the Cosmere than our protagonists do.
“Investiture,” in a general sense, appears to indicate a broad measure of magical power. When a person is Invested, they’re actively tapping into their planet or realm’s specific form of magic and channeling it. Sometimes, depending on the environment, the world itself can contain Invested objects: the flowers from Warbreaker, and the highstorms from The Way of Kings are two examples of these naturally occurring Invested environments, containing, in some form or another, the magical essence of the planet (or rather, what is hiding on the planet…but we’ll get into that with the next article). Hopefully, more will be learned of Investiture as the Cosmere begins to coalesce.
The main magic system of Sanderson’s Mistborn series, Allomancy is accomplished through swallowing different metals and metabolizing (“burning”) them to achieve various effects. Mistings are those who can only metabolize one metal and therefore access a single power of Allomancy, whereas a Mistborn is one who can metabolize all sixteen metals and their alloys to gain access to the full range of allomantic abilities. Allomancy is a net-gain magic system, where a person introduces magic into their system and gains extra power from it. The abilities associated with Allomancy range from emotional control and manipulation to physical augmentation to gravitational control (using metals to pull and push oneself around the world). There are rare metals that Mistborn can metabolize that can make them even stronger Allomantic users, and some that can even show them the future itself. The most recent Mistborn novel The Alloy of Law and its forthcoming sequels, Shadows of Self and Bands of Mourning, introduce Mistings that can alter the flow of time, adding an intriguing and robust temporal component to the Allomantic powers.
A second branch of the Metallic Arts of the Mistborn series, Feruchemy is a net-neutral ability; the rare few who can practice Feruchemy wear metallic bracers on their body known as metalminds, and depending on the make of the metalmind, a feruchemist can actually store different aspects of themselves to tap into at a later time. For instance, a feruchemist can store their strength in a metalmind, feeding it for days at a time; while they’ll be weak for a few days, they can then tap into that strength later, making them superhumanly powerful for a period of time. In addition to transferring physical attributes (strength, speed, weight, breath, sight, etc.), they can also store aspects of the mind, such as memory, luck, determination, and more. A feruchemist doesn’t gain or lose power, they simply store it for later use.
The third branch of the Metallic Arts and potentially the most dangerous, Hemalurgy is all about net loss of power. A hemalurgist, using special metal spikes, can pierce a person with allomantic or feruchemical abilities and—depending on where they pin the spike—can steal the allomantic or feruchemical abilities of that person for themself. In the transfer of abilities, however, some power bleeds away—where Allomancy is associated with the force of preservation and Feruchemy is associated with balance, Hemalurgy is destructive and has terrifying implications.
A term first introduced in the Alloy of Law, Twinborn manifest the rare mixture of allomantic and feruchemical abilities. Varying in specific abilities (all of them powerful), a twinborn can be deadly if given the proper combination. Waxillium of Alloy of Law is a Twinborn who can reduce his mass into a metalmind, as well as push on the metal around him, making him a spectacular marksman and a human bullet to boot, as he propels his reduced-mass body through a city brimming with metallic structures. The full extent of these combinations have yet to be seen, but should prove incredibly interesting to follow as further details emerge.
Breath or BioChroma
Found in the world of Warbreaker, Breath is the power of life, essentially, and the more Breaths you have, the more power over that life you have. A person is born with a single Breath, but through many means, that person can add Breaths to their being. The more Breaths you have, the more abilities you gain from them. At fifty breaths, you can recognize how many Breaths another person has; at two hundred, you gain perfect pitch, and so on. These levels of power are measured in tiers called Heightenings.
Those who have Invested themselves with Breaths can actually re-invest those Breaths into inanimate objects, then set them tasks to perform. There are very few objects that cannot be Awakened and even then, stubborn materials such as steel or stone can still be coerced and Awakened should one reach the Ninth or Tenth Heightening, though it takes a tremendous amount of power. Awakening an object takes a specific command, and a willful release of your own Breaths, which flow into the object and bring it to life. During the process, energy is taken from your Breaths, while color is bled from the surrounding area, in order to supplement your creation. Breaths can, thankfully, be retrieved post-command, and taken back into the Awakener.
Elantris/The Emperor’s Soul
The Dor is a massive realm of power hidden from the world which can only be accessed through various linguistic devices and forms, and/or specific movement or shapes. Elantrians—those who have been chosen by the Shaod (or “the Transformation”), a divine process wherein a regular person is Invested with a connection to the Dor—are capable of accessing that power by drawing spells in the air using their native linguistic alphabet: the Aons. An Aon can signify a place, an emotion, an action, a name and so on; the Elantrians can pierce the skin of reality by drawing an Aon in the air and tapping into the Dor. Depending on the shape of the Aon, the Dor rushes to fill that space and carry out the inherent meaning of the Aon.
Aons—drawn alone, together, or with modifiers—all tap into the Dor, and produce different results. For example, the Aon for fire will create an explosion of heat, but with a modifier or another Aon, it can be directed or set to a specific degree of heat, whereas the Aon for distance will rocket you across the world, but with the right numerical modifier, you can designate exactly where you want to go.
It seems as though each culture has their own means by which to access the Dor, although the Shaod is the only way to become an Elantrian. One group of people practice specific martial arts, whose forms satisfy something in the Dor, granting them power, whereas a group of monks in the mountains actually grow their bones into specific shapes, tapping into the Dor through the twisted symbols within their own bodies.
A different means to access the Dor, Forgery is all about rewriting the history of an object, and then using linguistic shapes in the form of Soulstamps to activate those rewrites. And while this can be useful with inanimate objects and illusions, specialized stamps called Essence Marks can actually be used to forge the spiritual aspect of a person, a form of magic known as “Soulforging.” Essence Marks allow the forger to change their own history, rewriting it to give themselves specific abilities, skills, information, and so on, and can make a scholar of a soldier, for example, and vice versa.
The Stormlight Archive
Last on our list is the massive and varied system of magic from The Stormlight Archive, the ten-part epic fantasy series that Sanderson is currently working on; while he has stated that there are many, many different magic systems operating within its confines, the one that we currently know the most about is Surgebinding.
On Roshar, the planet of the Stormlight Archive, there are ten fundamental forces of the universe, and these are known as surges. A Surgebinder can access two of these surges each through the bond they develop with a spren, a sentient force of life or emotion. The spren helps them tap into the Investiture of the planet, a substance known as Stormlight. These surges range from Adhesion to Gravitation to Decay to Friction to Illumination to Growth and so on; the surgebinder inhales and holds onto the Stormlight, and uses it as fuel to for their abilities.
Two of the ranks of surgebinders we’ve met so far are Windrunners and Lightweavers (the names of each drawn from the ancient Orders of the Knights Radiant). Windrunners are able to access Adhesion and Gravitation in tandem, changing their gravitational orientation, as well as the use of pressure and vacuum around them. Lightweavers can utilize the surges of Illumination to create full auditory and visual illusions, as well as other perception-based changes; they can also utilize Transformation, using Stormlight to shift an object from one substance to another.
As I’ve mentioned, there are many more systems of magic and types of magical accoutrement on Roshar, but we’ll get into those with the upcoming Cosmere article, don’t you worry!
Sanderson’s systems are wide-ranging and wild and fun, and have given rise to many, many fascinating theories over the years. Eagle-eyed readers have questioned him about whether or not different magic systems can be used across planets (and series). Some have theorized about how to use Allomancy to space travel. Others have asked what would happen if you pitted an Allomancer against a Windrunner, and so on and so forth. The possibility for hypothesizing and drawing connections is endless, and Sanderson wisely lets people speculate wildly as he continues to work on his novels, and of course, his next great display of magic.
But where does this magic come from? Who is to say who can perform magic, and who can’t? Why are some planets thriving with it, when others aren’t? And just what the heck is a Cosmere?
All this and more, next time!
Martin Cahill is a publicist by day, a bartender by night, and a writer in between. When he’s not slinging words at Tor.com, he’s contributing to Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and blogging at his own website when the mood strikes him. A proud graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2014, you can find him on Twitter @McflyCahill90; tweet him about how barrel-aging beers are kick-ass, tips on how to properly mourn Parks and Rec, and if you have any idea on what he should read next, and you’ll be sure to become fast friends.