Lyndon Hardy's Master of the Five Magics (1984) is an odd little fantasy book with an unusual perspective. Set in a fairly generic high fantasy setting (demons, wizards, knights, blah), Master of the Five Magics is a perfect example of a very rare sort of fantasy world building.
The setting itself is left almost completely to the imagination - the landscape provides volcanos, castles and plains seemingly at random. The theology is dubiously constructed (mostly people just yell 'Sweetbalm!' at one another). Even the politics are left completely unexplained (somehow there's a queen, with suitors, and vague mentions of court politics).
The entirety of the author's imaginative efforts are devoted towards a single purpose: creating a scientific system of magic.
The pedestrian and un-empathetic hero works his way through the various arcane arts of the realm, patiently evaluating each one. The reader learns (in great detail) the pros and cons, the costs, the materials, the history, the introductory rituals... the entire systemic process.
As its best, Master of the Five Magics is interesting without being entertaining (like a well-written Wikipedia entry). At its worst, it reads like a programming manual for the occult arts.
In fact, the book is largely defined by the fact that - days after completing it - I can still name the five types of magic (Alchemy, Thaumaturgy, Sorcery, Magic and Wizardry - as well as the defining features of each) - but not the land the book is set in. Or, for that matter, the lead character (I think his name started with an 'A').
As a result, the book is much closer to traditional science fiction than to fantasy. Rather than escapism, heroics or imaginative world-building, Hardy uses the book to introduce, explain and then imaginatively explore a 'system' of science (or, in this case, magic). The ultimate resolution of the book's conflict hinges on finding a new way to 'break' or interpret the science. Isaac Asimov would have been proud, as the 'science'-twist-driven narrative is straight out of his work.
There aren't a lot of books that follow this style - at least, outside of RPG fiction. Sheri S. Tepper's The True Game series is one and Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell comes dangerously close to being another. Most fantasy novels that explore the 'science' of magic in detail go the whole hog and pair it with a detailed world as well (and sometimes they even add characters!). As such, The Master of the Five Magics is well worth reading for the rarity of the experience alone - the fantasy that forgot the fun.
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