ARIAH Countdown: The Value of Magic

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A defining trait of Ariah is the presence of magic. It’s a key element of the world of Aerdh, the book’s setting, and it’s a defining feature of the titular character. The fact that Ariah is, among other things, a magical creature, gets the narrative going—the book starts with him seeking out a mentor who will guide him to mastery over his magical gifts. Such training is traditional for Semadran elves like him, and his particular combination of gifts are rare enough that finding a suitable mentor takes him far from home. Ariah’s gifts are strong enough, formidable enough, that he eventually must take on a second mentor even farther from home to fully understand himself.

Writing fiction is an art defined by choice. So, what drove my choice to weave magic into this book, and to place it so prominently? What makes magic, as an idea, valuable to the reader? And what makes magic, as a fact in Ariah’s world, valuable to him and those around him?

The truth is that magic as an idea is only as valuable as I make it to the reader and to Ariah. It is a clear case of “show, don’t tell.” I can tell you it’s valuable—but unless I shore up that claim with worldbuilding and details and narrative tension then you, as the reader, won’t feel that value. It won’t add anything to your experience of the book.

For Ariah, the value of his magic is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it grants him great insight into those around him. It makes him prescient; it makes him astute. Given his social position as an elf in a Qin-led society, there is value in this. Anyone who has ever been marginalized knows that it pays to pay close attention to those in power. It’s always useful to be the most knowledgeable man in the room. Over the course of the book, his magic saves his life and others’ lives quite literally.

But there is a danger to his magic, too. As protective as his magic can be, the use of Ariah’s magic has the potential to get him arrested, impressed into military service against his will or rejected by friends and loved ones. The use of it sometimes comes at a steep cost for complex, layered reasons: issues of personal privacy, issues of cultural confusion and purity, issues of outright oppression. All of these things weigh on Ariah’s mind in the moments when he must decide when to use his magic and when not to.

For me, a recurrent theme in Ariah is the toll exploitation takes on marginalized people. This is best captured in the relationship the Qin Imperials have towards the Semadran elves’ magic—they use it, constantly, to improve the Empire, but berate it, constantly, as unclean and impure. Elves with a facility for what is called patternwork (something akin to real-world engineering) are assigned work in research laboratories and paid a pittance to design bigger, better factories and military machinery. Those elves continue to live in the ghettos while the Qin profit off their magically influenced creations. Ariah and his mentor, Dirva, get work as linguists, helping to translate in diplomatic parleys between far-flung ambassadors. That Ariah and Dirva know these languages and can learn them extremely quickly due to their magical biological wiring only seems to matter functionally insomuch as it means they can be paid very little.

The Qin have evolved religious reasons why magic is impure. Rationales always spring up to explain away injustices and support the status quo; this is a social fact. By the time Ariah tells his story, these rationales have been ensconced in law, codified and enshrined. His life is structured such that the Qin are able to get the maximum value out of his magic while he reaps the least amount of profit from it—because he is impure for having magic in the first place.

But magic, because it so totally shapes how Ariah perceives and relates to the world around him, also becomes a primary means of his small acts of resistance against the system exploiting him. In the doing, Ariah exists in that tension between the value and the danger of his magic for much of the book.