I’ve been a reading fiend lately—my new library card is beginning to wear down under the abuse. I’m trying to catch up on several years’ worth of not-having-consistent-time-to-read, and have especially been trying to reacquaint myself with both what’s new and what classics I haven’t read from the genres I love. Because of this, in the last two weeks I’ve found myself reading two different books that are set on an Earth so post-apocalyptic as to be unrecognizable. These books are both ostensibly fantasy—they include magic items, fantastical locales, and creatures of legend—but the fact that they’re supposedly set on our Earth gives me pause. If there wasn’t magic before the apocalypse, where did this magic come from?
The Sword of Shannara, which I talked about last week, posits a world where human warfare destroyed the Earth so badly that civilization was unable to recover. The remainder of the Earth’s inhabitants, human or otherwise, evolved (over an inexplicably short time as far as evolution is concerned) into more fantasy versions of themselves. Trees are able to cast spells on passersby to lure them into their roots as food. Humans still exist, but so do dwarves, elves, gnomes, trolls, and wizards (called Druids, here). Also, now, there is magic. It comes in the form of magical items, from swords that are truthier than Wonder Woman’s lasso to magical gems that can protect their bearer against non-physical threats. It also comes in the form of spells, illusions, and the ability to astrally project.
And although the source of this sudden magic is kind of explained in one of the book’s many egregiously long expository passages, it’s so handwavey as to be pointless. Essentially, after mankind nearly destroyed itself, the Druids were originally comprised of the remaining men who still had valuable knowledge from before. Somehow, despite their limited and vague hold on civilization’s knowledge, they managed to conduct experiments that led them to discover a spiritual plane. This is apparently how they got their magic, although it’s uncertain how it then spread throughout the land.
Furthermore, it’s hard to suspend my disbelief that scientists at the height of civilization before its collapse hadn’t been able to tap into this plane, but a few ragtag researchers armed only with hand-me-down knowledge were able to manage it. Instead, it comes across as “magic is suddenly real because otherwise my story doesn’t work”. This could have easily been salvaged by setting the story in a genuine fantasy world, or by expanding more on the idea that magic was around before civilization fell but was only known to a chosen few, or pretty much anything besides what the author did.
I also recently read The Queen of the Tearling, a fantasy novel by Erika Johansen. The setting of this is more nebulous than that of Shannara’s, but it’s nevertheless tied to the real Earth. The protagonist’s home country of Tear as well as several other countries were founded on what seems to be a new and mysterious landmass that’s appeared on Earth. Because of the unclear background information given, the reader isn’t sure of the circumstances of this appearance, i.e. whether it’s been a long, long time since our current day and it showed up via regular tectonic shifting, or if it appeared by some more arcane method. However, as it was settled by utopian separatists from a variety of Western countries, it’s probably safe to assume it showed up in the Atlantic. The story takes place many generations after the Crossing (as this migration was termed) occurred, and much of the advanced technology that they brought with them was either lost on the journey or in the meantime.
The story also involves an evil queen in service to a demon, a pair of sapphires that give the true heir to the throne of Tear a multitude of magical powers, and several humans with the ability to see the future (with mixed specificity). Not only are these things never explained in the narrative, they’re never really questioned by any of the characters, either. If they actually came from a purely scientific society without proven, replicable magic, then why is it that protagonist Kelsea never questions how, for example, her magical sapphires know that she is the true queen? How did her lady-in-waiting Andalie come by the ability to see the future? They’re just accepted parts of society, and it isn’t well explained why.
I haven’t read the second book in the series yet, so there’s possibly more to learn about the Crossing and whether they changed dimensions as well as continents. There was a single vague allusion to the fact that something like this might have happened. That would give the series a bit more of a pass, because as it stands, I feel like it’s a weak spot in the series’s otherwise fascinating worldbuilding. As with The Sword of Shannara, it seems like an unnecessary complication to what was already an interesting story, just so the writer could have the protagonist wielding magical gem powers in defense of her country in one scene and then going home to curl up with a Harry Potter book that’s somehow managed to survive since the Crossing in another.
There are certainly fantasy stories that pull off their ties to Earth and their justifications for magic much more deftly. For example, The Dragonriders of Pern series feels like it is rife with magic, until the characters discover that what seemed so mysterious to them is technology their civilization had forgotten how to use in the face of ongoing, planet-wide disaster. Here, the source of the magic is that it’s not magic at all, just science at work. The Briar King and its sequels deal with the whereabouts of the missing Roanoke colony, positing that they were thrown into a different dimension where they went on to found a country and dynasty of their own in the land they discovered there. Thus the source of the magic is not from Earth itself, but rather from another place from which it spilled over. On the flip side of that, if magic has always existed in some way on Earth but was just revealed or brought to the forefront because of some cataclysm, I’m more willing to buy that as well. Maybe the cataclysm unlocked some genetic potential, as with the Change powers in Stranger and Hostage.
In the end, I think it’s a big risk to bring any mention of modern Earth into your high fantasy novel. It can be done, but should be done with caution, as it’s too easy for it to muddle your storyline rather than making it more interesting. I’d much rather read a unique high fantasy story set in a completely different world than on an inexplicably magical Earth.