The Magic Goes Away by Larry Niven

magic goes away

Published: 1982 by Orbit
My copy: bought secondhand

Memorable quote: “The castles we raised by magic along the coast are falling down. The ambrosia is dying. We must migrate inland. I fear the results if my students can’t learn to use less powerful spells.”

I am fussy about fantasy, like super-fussy. Magic swords and mythical beasts and stuff I can cope with but only when the world containing them has some elements that firmly rooted in or analogous to the real world. In Game of Thrones it’s not the dragons and sorcery that really captivate me (although I enjoy those aspects too) it’s the espionage and dirty political machinations that really aren’t so far away from, say, the bloody power struggles of the Renaissance European courts. The Magic Goes Away is a short novel that works because it roots its high fantasy – necromancy, castles in the air, unicorns and Atlantis – in something we can all relate to, the notion of environmental scarcity. Mana, in this setting, is a fossil fuel, a finite resource and it is running out. The story chronicles the quest of a group of once powerful magicians who have been quarreling for hundreds of years but are forced to work together to try to solve the mana crisis before their way of life (and the very spells they have woven to prolong their lives and resist aging) crumble to dust. It’s a brilliant marriage of the high fantasy quest jaunt and the environmental fable. The idea of an energy crisis really grounds the characters who could otherwise appear quite clichéd (aged warlock, beautiful witch etc) while the mythical aspects of the plot add a layer of fun and escapism that stops it being too much of an anvilicious fable.

Overall, this is a short quick read but one that, despite being published thirty years ago, contains a wealth of interesting ideas that feel more relevant than ever to today’s wasteful society. Well worth a look.

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