Magic in the Gryphon Clerks

Almost everyone who talks about Realmgolds (my first Gryphon Clerks novel, currently free on Amazon until Friday) or any of the short stories set in the same world mentions the setting. I did put a lot of work into creating it, over a long period of time, before I started writing the stories. There's a great deal that I know that you don't know yet, and in some cases never will know, at least not from reading the stories. (There are also some things I don't know yet either, but we won't talk about those.)

One thing people have asked about is the magic system. The people in Realmgolds are mostly in the political and administrative spheres, and therefore don't know or care how the magic works. They only want to know what effects they can achieve with it. The next book, Hope and the Clever Man, on the other hand, has as its title characters two people who very much care how it works, so there will be a little more said about it. I'll do my best to refrain from infodumping, though.

My editor, in particular, was unconvinced that I'd thought it all the way through at first. I had to write her a document to show her that I really had. In case this is the kind of thing that interests you, here is that document.

Magic in the Gryphon Clerks

There are a number of different forms of magic in the world of the Gryphon Clerks. What that number is depends on who you ask.

There are also several ranks of mage. Mages-minor can perform simple magic, make very basic magical devices, and operate more complex ones. A mage-minor is permitted to wear a bangle of a material that indicates the kind of magic he or she specializes in. A full mage, who can make complex magical devices and perform advanced magic, may wear a bracelet, again of different materials depending on the type of magic, and a master-magus wears a wider armlet or cuff.

Elvish Magic

The elves were the imperial power who brought humans to the world (as slaves) and, some evidence suggests, modified them so that they too were able to perform magic. The elves recognise three kinds of magic (three being their sacred number): mindmagic, lifemagic and a third category derisively called “the magic of dead things”, which takes in the whole of dwarvish magic.

Elvish magic tends to involve a lot of words, chanting, elegant gestures and ritual threes. Circles and triangles, organic-looking interweaving shapes, and geometric figures may also feature.


The magic of the mind maps fairly well to the domain of psychology. It involves matters such as motivation, influence and perception.

The most common mindmagic, familiar to everyone, is the magic of oaths, vows and geasa, behavioural bindings which are very difficult, though not impossible, to break. They create a powerful mental pressure to keep them, comparable to an obsession, compulsion or addiction if you are trying to break them, or a very powerful positive motivation if you’re not. Marriage oaths are the most common - marriage is referred to as “oathbinding” and one’s spouse as one’s “oathmate” - but oaths are also taken between master and servant, liege and vassal, close friends, even members of military units. There is often a physical focus or token for the oath, typically a finger-ring, though the military use arm-rings on the upper arm. For oaths of alliance and allegiance the ring is worn on the right hand, for love and friendship on the left (the heart side).

A well-made oath, with the assistance of a competent mindmage, added to familiarity and genuine emotion, gives the participants in the oath an enhanced sense of each other. They can’t read each other’s thoughts, but providing they’re reasonably nearby they’re aware of each other’s strong emotions and physical location, even if they’re not able to see or hear each other.

Similar to an oath is a geis. The difference between the two is that an oath is between two people, mutually agreed on and binds both of them, while a geis is imposed by someone in authority on another person, and binds only the recipient. The person who receives the geis must acknowledge the authority of the one who imposes it, and must be able to perform the action of the geis, and consent to it, even if reluctantly. Geasa may include aversions or actions which are forbidden as well as actions which are required.

A vow is like a self-imposed geas. It is often, but not necessarily, witnessed by another person.

An oath is often recorded on a beautifully drawn and calligraphed piece of paper, with geometric figures corresponding to the magic of the oath and recording it. These papers are typically produced in triplicate, and the two parties to the oath and the witness each keep one. The parties and the witness sign them, mark them with their personal seals or the seals of their rank or position (if they have any - typically this is something only a Gold or a wealthy Silver will have, unless they are a Gryphon Clerk), and thumbprint them. The act of doing so, along with the oath itself, produces a record on the paper that can be read by anyone who has any skill in mindmagic to verify that the oath is a true oath. Among illiterate Coppers, oaths are usually verbal unless they go to a scribe and pay to have an oath recorded.

The seals (gold for a Gold, silver for a Silver) are themselves bespelled for this purpose.

Another form of mindmagic is parallel to charisma. All natural leaders and influencers possess an aptitude for it, and if trained can enhance it and so increase their authority. The elves did not reveal everything they knew about this form of mindmagic to their human subjects, and it is not as well understood, or as effective, as oaths and geasa.

The elves also possessed the knowledge of “glamour”, which is a form of mindmagic which influences the perceptions of those around the mage, in the mage’s favour. This art is considered lost.

The final category of mindmagic crosses over with lifemagic, and is the use of trance states to perceive the world differently or to control one’s body processes. This knowledge is mostly preserved among shamans of the peasants’ Earthist religion, though the upper classes have kept the knowledge of sleep induction and a form of learning trance.

University-trained practitioners of mindmagic wear bracelets (etc.) of black wood, often elaborately carved in the case of the more advanced mages. Shamans wear only a single piece of cloth and are marked with a magical picture of their beast totem and (for full shamans) their plant totem, received during an ordeal of meditation.


Lifemagic maps to the domains of medicine and biology. Again, the old imperial elves were advanced practitioners, bioengineers who could create new species and combine human and animal traits into peoples like the beastheads and the centaurs, or combine different animals into creatures like the flying horses and the gryphons. Little of their ancient knowledge survives in the hands of humans, only enough for medical use.

There are blurred boundaries between lifemagic and mindmagic, and between healers and mindhealers. A good healer will possess living insight, the ability to perceive the patient’s body processes, and the unseen touch, the ability to influence those processes (blood flow; cell division, growth and function; digestion; immune response; neurochemistry, to a degree, and glandular activity; and detoxification). Healers are also able to adjust their patients’ pain perception and initiate the Healer’s Sleep, a form of unconsciousness during which healing is accelerated.

Some of the elves’ creations, like the medicine cattle which give pharmaceutical milk, have been preserved and even improved (by selective breeding), while others, like the process for turning the sap of a certain tree into a useful polymer called hardlac, have been lost.

University-trained practitioners of lifemagic have bracelets of bone or ivory. Healers also wear a distinctive round hat.

Dwarvish Magic

Dwarves scorn mindmagic and lifemagic and don’t include them in their schema, which is based around their sacred number: four. They recognize magic relating to matter, energy, space and time, although the last two are largely theoretical.

Dwarven magic, though it often uses spoken words to trigger it, is mostly achieved through sigils created from the square Dwarvish alphabet. Any dwarven magical device will be engraved with sigils, a great many of them in the case of more complex magic, often worked into a larger diagram.

Matter Magic

The magic of matter is in shaping, refining, combining and transforming. The dwarves have an advanced materials science, though at this historical period they preserve ancient traditions rather than researching new techniques. Their materials are light and strong and exhibit other useful physical properties (insulation and conduction of light, sound, heat and other forms of energy, for example). They craft intricate devices and engines from these materials.

A university-trained human practitioner of matter magic wears a metal bracelet (silver or pewter) set with a yellow stone, such as a citrine or, for the wealthy, a yellow diamond or sapphire. Matter magic is not an especially common subject for human study, but there are practitioners.

Energy Magic

Energy, in dwarvish definition, includes anything nonmaterial which acts at a distance. Most energy magic is concerned with light and heat, but there is also the magic of sound, and forms of distant force which push and pull. Most energy magic except the very simplest movements of light and heat requires the use of crystals of various kinds.

The commonest form of energy magic involves moving energy to or from another, parallel space or dimension. Even largely untrained humans can summon a weak light and enough heat to start a fire, but advanced practitioners can create devices which draw in enough energy to heat water for steam (as a working fluid for vehicles and to power factories) or to smelt metals. Other applications include cooling (by moving heat away to a cooler space) and, of course, magical lights which are reliable, bright and cool.

The dwarf banks operate a network of paired tablets which, when one of the pair is written upon, reproduce the message on the other. This enables funds transfers across distances where it would be slow, tedious or dangerous to carry money. They guard this technology closely, and only meticulous dwarf craftsmanship allows the tablets to be sufficiently similar to work in this way. Recently, however, Realmgold Victory’s clever man Dignified Printer has used his background as a printer’s apprentice to create complex magical devices which are nearly identical and can be linked in sympathy across great distances to transmit either sound and vision, or sound alone.

An application of energy magic to sound is the privacy rug, which prevents words spoken within its bounds from being heard outside it.

A university-trained human practitioner of energy magic has a red stone (garnet or ruby, usually) set in his or her metal bracelet.

Space Magic

The main real-world applications of space magic are to change the direction of gravity or reduce its effects, to enlarge spaces so that they are bigger on the inside than their outer dimensions allow for, and to create portals which shorten the distance between two points. All of these applications require specific conditions, including, for portals and enlarged spaces, a large mass of stable granite (it’s something to do with the quartz). To maintain a portal or enlarged space consumes a lot of a resource known as “magical flux”, which is theorized to be the difference in magical potential between two adjacent dimensions. Magical flux varies geographically. This means that other magic may not work well, or may be harder to do, in the vicinity of a portal or enlarged space. Setting up such a structure is also a tricky engineering task.

The flying boats and ships of Victory’s military use the antigravity form of space magic, mediated by large flight crystals. These crystals are expensive and difficult to make. In fact, “expensive and difficult” is a phrase closely associated with space magic.

The few space mages among the human population have blue stones set in their bracelets (usually sapphires, since they are well paid).

Time Magic

Time magic is, if anything, more expensive and difficult than space magic, and is little used. Extremely valuable items that might deteriorate over time are sometimes put in stasis boxes, in which time passes more slowly. It’s theoretically possible to speed time up, as well, but considering how difficult it is to do so, there are no practical applications.

There are no human time mages.


I hope you've enjoyed that little look under the hood. I'm a big fan of wizard fantasy myself (Amazon recognise a subgenre of fantasy called "magic and wizards" now, so I'm clearly not the only one), and I'm having fun writing Hope and the Clever Man.

If you haven't picked up Realmgolds yet, it's free until midnight Friday, US Pacific time. The more downloads, the merrier!

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Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

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