We sometimes face challenges that appear insurmountable by mundane means. One possible solution: whip out some chalk, inscribe a summoning circle, appeal to the powerful entity that appears, then sit back to enjoy the bounty that follows. Authors being authors, the bounty generally consists of disastrous complications emerging from insufficiently (or excessively) precise phrasing.
Since watching people step on rakes clearly labeled “Do not step on rake!” is amusing, authors have dreamed up many stories about misguided characters appealing to dread beings or accepting magical aid. Here are five examples.
The Traveler in Black by John Brunner (1971)
[The Traveler in Black] had many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding upon ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.
The Traveler is a reality-warper, able to deliver to the unfortunates who catch his attention exactly what they wished for. What they wish for is almost never what they really want. Prudent inhabitants of a magical realm would eschew the Traveler’s services…which is why the Traveler is prone to eavesdropping on strangers and then providing them with unrequested marvels beyond human ken.
The Traveler is something of a trickster and it helps when reading this collection to have a dark sense of humour. That said, he is also forwarding a great work. His victims are the raw material from which a new order will arise.
Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono (1985)
Unlike the Traveler in Black, witch Kiki is entirely benevolent. Born to a witch mother and human father, Kiki has embraced her mother’s heritage. Now, thirteen-year-old Kiki must endure a rite of passage to earn recognition as a witch: travel alone to a new town and there make herself useful to her new neighbors.
The catch is that of all the witchy skills Kiki could have learned, Kiki commands just one. She knows how to fly on a broom. The trick will be to find some need that can be filled by a girl on a broom. Insightful readers may be able to guess what that niche could be from the novel’s title.
This upbeat novel left me tremendously concerned about the preservation of magic in Japan. Although Kiki’s father is archiving everything his wife knows, it’s clear that skills are being lost generation to generation. As well, the rite of passage seems like one many witches might not survive: if angry mobs don’t turn on them, long falls off flying broomsticks could do them in.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa (2003)
High-school student Kyon has long ago reconciled himself to the fact that the world is utterly mundane. He might dream of time travelers, aliens, psychics, and living gods, but the reality in which he is forced to live is a gray world of joyless normality. This view is clear, simple, and wrong, as Kyon discovers after he falls into the orbit of his charismatic classmate Haruhi Suzumiya.
Where Kyon has given up on his dreams, Haruhi is determined to find them. She seeks wonder in a mundane world. To this end, she forms the SOS Brigade (the Save the World by Overloading It With Fun Haruhi Suzumiya Brigade), whose mission it is to find the time travelers, aliens, sliders, and psychics. Little does she suspect how successful SOS already is. Kyon aside, each member of the club is just such a time traveler, alien, slider, or psychic. Each of these folks has their own take on Haruhi, but they agree on one thing: godlike Haruhi can never know how powerful she is; if she were to learn, the universe itself might not survive.
Readers may wonder how self-centered an oblivious living god can be. The answer is “very.” Haruhi is (at least in the early volumes of this series) a god with narcissistic personality disorder. That’s bad. Over the course of the series she does learn and improve, at least by comparison to her starting point.
(Side note: Is it weird that the one person who got what they wished for in this series was Kyon, the one member of SOS who is supposed to be completely normal?)
The Elder Sister-like One by Iida Pochi (2016)
Orphaned at five, Yuu has been passed from relative to relative. Seen as an unwanted burden, Yuu has been denied the loving household he craves. Succor appears in the form of his ailing uncle’s secret occult research.
While searching for his uncle’s health card, Yuu finds himself face to face with Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young. Shub-Niggurath offers the usual deal: a wish in exchange for Yuu’s soul. Naïve Yuu concludes that the extremely busty, scantily dressed, be-tentacled, obviously demonic woman must be an angel and wishes for her to be his big sister. The eldritch horror isn’t certain how to proceed, but wishes are wishes and she will do her best.
Readers may wonder why a soul-eating eldritch horror would appear in the form this one does. Marketing. As far as I can tell, this manga began as explicit adult content but was reimagined as merely risqué when the found-family angle proved more popular than the sex stuff. That said, it is probably best to regard this manga as borderline X-rated and not appropriate for all ages.
Ten Thousand Stitches by Olivia Atwater (2020)
A maid’s lot in Regency England is an unhappy one. A kind word from toff Benedict to servant Effie leaves Effie infatuated with the not obviously monstrous Benedict. The vast social gulf between maid and aristocrat ensures that nothing can come of this, absent a miracle. Or a Faerie Godfather.
Lord Blackthorn is determined to do good and the faerie lord isn’t going to let his shaky grasp of what “good” is, as humans define it, get in the way. With Lord Blackthorn’s eager, poorly informed assistance, Effie is assured true love…or if things go wrong, as well they might, a life spend serving Lord Blackthorn in his faerie realm.
Lord Blackthorn is a sincere nincompoop, not a trickster looking for cheap help. Lord Blackthorn is also an example of how hard it can be to distinguish well-meaning ignorance from overt malice.
People have been wishing for magical loopholes ever since humans conceived of magic; for just as long, tale-spinners have been amusing audiences with stories about magical assistance gone wrong. Five examples only scratch the surface, of course. If you have favorites I haven’t included, please mention them in comments, which are, as ever, below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.