How to describe the indescribable?
It’s a question all writers must wrestle with. But writers of fantasy often have to deal with the question in a more practical way than writers of realism do. I’m not here to say that one is easier or better than the other – but when a writer, say, describes the flight of a bird, they can assume that every one of their readers will have witnessed such a thing (and probably hundreds, if not thousands, of times). However, when a fantasy author describes how a flying car maneuvers the skies or details the rules of an entirely airborne, broom-bound sport, they can’t always rely on their readers to bring their own experiences to the text. In the land of fantasy, connections to the shared reality that we all spend our day-to-day lives in are vague, tenuous, or even nonexistent.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in fantasy authors’ descriptions of magic. What does it look like? How does it feel? Does it look and feel different when you’re casting a spell as opposed to how it does when you’re summoning a demon?
There are stereotypes, of course, clichés that appear again and again in book after book. But any ambitious author, any world-builder worth their salt, will take a stab at coming up with their own, unique set of descriptions, rules, and characteristics for their magical fictions.
When I read fantasy, I look forward to these moments. There’s a certain kind of thrill that comes from watching someone successfully describe into existence something that has never before been seen, separate and distinct from the thrill that comes from reading a realist’s finely, freshly observed rendering of something previously (and often frequently) experienced. And maybe it’s because I get so excited for these moments, but a lot of times they leave me feeling disappointed. The writer ends up reaching for a cliché, or maybe just can’t figure out how to inject the weight of reality into a totally new, utterly made-up thing.
One writer who has yet to disappoint me in this way is Chris Moriarty. I am nearly done with her novel The Inquisitor’s Apprentice – a book that manages to blend elements of mystery, fantasy, alternate history, coming-of-age, and even a little steampunk – and it has been nothing but thrilling. Moriarty is especially good at describing magic. She seems to have worked out a sort of formula for doing so (not that there’s anything cold or mathematic about her writing). She usually begins by relating the magic to a real world object or experience – but then takes a leap and has a go at describing the indescribable. For instance:
And then she did it.
Whatever “it” was.
Something flimmered over her head, like the hazy halo that blossomed around street lamps on foggy nights. Sacha guessed it must be what people called an aura. Except that the word “aura” sounded all mysterious and scientific. And the flimmery light around Mrs. Lassky and her latkes just looked grandmotherly and frazzled, and a little silly and, well . . . a lot like Mrs. Lassky herself.
Something else you may have noticed while reading the passage above – Moriarty never abandons her sense of humor. It’s there in full force when she’s describing magic, and this lends an even greater sense of uniqueness and weight to her world.
For this week’s passage of the week, I’ll leave you with one more example of Moriarty describing magic in action. But believe me – this is one among many. If any of the above sounds appealing to you, if you’re in the mood for a curious and exciting ride, or if you just want to read a few thousand exquisitely crafted sentences, then get your hands on this book. Read it, and you will not regret it.
. . .
From “The Inquisitor’s Apprentice,” by Chris Moriarty (pp. 78-79)
And then Morgaunt began to work magic.
It was so subtle that at first Sacha didn’t even see it. Morgaunt still had that coldly mocking smile on his face. He lounged in his wing chair swirling his Scotch lazily in one hand. But somehow it felt like he had reached out and grasped Wolf by the throat and was slowly strangling him.
Before Sacha knew what was happening, the entire room was thick with magic. And this was nothing like the ordinary everyday magic Sacha knew from Hester Street. This magic was larger than mere human beings. It gave him the same unnerving feeling he always got when he looked into the open pits that workmen were digging all over town for the new subway lines. You walked around the city all your life thinking that you were standing on solid ground. But then they brought in the steam shovels and ripped up the cobblestones, and you realized that the earth – the real, living, breathing earth – was still alive down there in the dark beneath the city. And if it ever woke up, it would shake off New York and all its teeming millions like a dog shaking off a flea.
Wolf and Morgaunt stared at each other. The room seemed about to catch fire. The very air crackled with magic. It felt as if all the magic in the world were being sucked in around them like a great whirlpool, spiraling down into the glowing golden liquid in Morgaunt’s hand.
Morgaunt raised his glass in an ironic toast. “Here’s to you and me, Wolf. The last two honest men in New York.”
Wolf didn’t answer. A dark flush had spread across his usually pale features. His breath was as ragged as if he’d just run up a flight of stairs. Sacha wanted to rush to help him, and he could see that Lily felt the same. But they were both frozen to the spot.
And then it was over.
Morgaunt tossed back his drink with one sharp flick of his wrist and broke the spell. Wolf staggered, gasping for breath.