My first M/M romance, After the War, was the story of two warriors growing closer to each other while on the run from an invasion force. While one of them is a gunslinger, the other's an old-fashioned swordsman, and I felt very certain of its status as romantic fantasy until I started getting feedback: there was hardly any magic in it. Wizards were mentioned in passing, but several readers even wondered if I hadn’t written a historical piece without realizing it. I disagreed--it had certainly felt like a fantasy world I was constructing as I thought up its geography, cultures, even religions.
But it left me wondering--is there a minimum amount of fantastic happenings to be included in a fantasy story? And is magic one of them?
For that matter, what counts as magic? Strange creatures? Unicorns may have magical powers in one setting and be natural, if unusual, animals in another. Even beings like vampires, Amazons, or shapeshifters can make a story speculative without including any outright wizardry. In the Middle Ages, alchemists tried to become immortal or transmute metals--things that look a lot like magic to us, although they would insist differently (especially if the Inquisition came around). What about witches? Are they manipulators of the basic nature of reality, or simply wise herbalists? And what about Arthur C. Clarke's law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"? Some wonderful steampunk has been written straddling the boundaries of science and sorcery. In this world's Victorian era, Forteans and investigators into the Spiritualist wave tried to make sense of the supernatural in a scientific context, preferring psychic powers and hidden dimensions to magic.
Is magic something the characters in a story take in stride? Or is it uncanny, mysterious in origin and beyond human comprehension? Can you see a wizard's duel at the weekly market, or would a feud between sorcerers be a once-in-a-millennium occurrence that threatens the stability of empires? And wherever it falls between those two points, how do ordinary people feel about magic? If rare but benevolent, it may be a miracle. If commonplace and dangerous, witchcraft may become a petty crime.
In my short story Unnatural Means, I finally wrote about magic...or did I? While Unnatural Means clearly takes place in a world where people believe in--and persecute--magic, the viewpoint character, Isak, is never certain whether his prisoner Sain is a true witch or not. Whether the reader believes Sain or Isak will impact their judgement of the characters, but it's certainly true that Isak feels Sain has some sort of hold over him, bewitchment or not.
My forthcoming release from Carina, Gardens Where No One Can See, will be my first M/M romance to feature what it unquestionably magic: cruel sorcery so powerful it overcomes the warrior Renad's will, enslaving him. Renad and his friend and lover, Nemaran, aren't magicians, and they don't understand the intricacies of the spell binding him. Instead they have to feel their way around it, working together to learn as much as they can and find a way to counter it. Like Unnatural Means, Gardens is a story that wouldn't happen without the idea of magic, and it's also what I like to call a "nature of magic" story: how sorcery works is crucial to solving the problem the characters confront.
Although writing a "nature of magic" story was fun and gave me plenty to think about, I also enjoyed exploring the boundaries of fantasy with the comparatively mundane After the War. What I love most about a story are how the characters interact with each other and with their world, whether magic is a major part of it or only a glimmer of mystery at the corners of what they know.
What sort of role do you like magic to play in your stories? Would you ever consider reading or writing a fantasy story where the existence of magic is unclear or unproven, or where it exists but doesn't directly impact the plot? And--my gooey inner nature won't let me close without asking--isn't love the greatest magic of all? ;-D