Exploring the Outstanding Magic from
“Passage to Avalon”
Today, we’re going to approach magic systems a little differently. Mike Thayer recently released his first book The Epic Adventures of The Techno Wizard: Passage to Avalon. Not only was Mike kind enough to send me an advanced copy to read, he also took time out of his busy launch schedule to sit down with me and answer a few questions.
But first, the book!
A Lightning Review
Passage to Avalon is a portal fantasy novel targeted for grades 3-8.
The book follows one Samwise (Sam) Shelton, a 13-year-old boy with a fondness for pranks to rival any tricksy hobbitses. Sam is right in the middle of his greatest prank yet when the unexpected happens, and he finds himself transported to the aether-filled land of Avalon.
There’s just one catch: Sam is the only person in the entire land that can’t use aether, which means no magic for Samwise. Fortunately, he has the best smartphone money can buy, a backpack brimming with spy-tech, and the occasional signal back home.
Oh, did I forget to mention the tyrannical, aether-hoarding emperor that wants Sam out of the picture?
Sounds pretty sweet, right? Well, it is!
In all honesty, this book isn’t my usual poison of choice. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read any middle-grade fiction since, well, since I was in the middle grades.
Even still, the book was light and entertaining, the characters were both endearing and heart-wrenching, and the magic was immensely satisfying. I don’t know if I’m the best judge for this age group, but I would have killed to get my hands on a book like this in 4th grade.
But we’re not here to critique the book (it was good), we’re not here to discuss Mike Thayer as a person (he’s a really cool dude), and we’re certainly not here to talk about the magic system, so…
Wait. That’s exactly why we’re here, so let’s get to the interview already!
Interview with the Author
Rowenson: Okay, Mike. I read your book and I’ve already got so many questions about the magic of Avalon. Let’s start with the age-old question: Where were you at 1 AM on the night of April 2nd?
*Blinks* *consults notes*
Sorry, Mike. Wrong file. Where did the concept for your system come from? You and I have talked a bit about it in the past, but you never really told me if it was inspired by another author’s magic, a game, or your pilgrimage to the Oracle of Delphi?
Mike: The basis for this magic system came from the computer game Agar.io.
In the game, you basically start off as a small dot; the game board is littered with tons of tiny dots and other players. The point is to run over other dots (including other players), absorb their mass, and try to grow as big as possible. Those are the basic rules of the entire game. You can also do things like split your mass to jump forward and move faster, but that makes you more vulnerable to being swallowed up. There are also “viruses” on the map that explode your mass into tons of smaller pieces.
To be honest, I never really played the game all that much, but after watching my brother-in-law and nephew play it, I was fascinated by all of the clever applications that were possible from the simple game mechanic. I knew I could apply the same basic principles to a magic system and make something cool and unique. To me, the little dots represented collections of aether and the viruses were drainers. Everything started falling into place from there.
Rowenson: Nice! I love it when people take simple concepts like that and try to explore their potential effects and consequences. Whenever I’m building a magic system, I know things are going right when I start seeing all the character and plot elements that can rise from the system.
Which did you build first, the story or the magic system?
Mike: I had an idea of a kid with a bunch of technology being transported to a medieval type world and then developed the magic system independent of that. Putting those two together was the funnest thing about this book. Aether gave me a way to keep cell signal open between Avalon and Earth. It also allowed me to layer on that Sam was a drainer which gave the reason why he is in immediate danger from the emperor. It all ended up complimenting itself perfectly.
Rowenson: I really liked how you tied the magic to Sam’s signal home. It’s a crafty way to push him towards the center of magical events. The more magic he’s around, the more help he can get from home.
At multiple points throughout the book, it comes up that there are different tiers of aether users: Sparker, Blazer, Scorcher, Inferno, and Eternal. Can you tell me a bit more about the different levels and their abilities?
Mike: This was one of the first things I mapped out.
In fact, I’ve got personal excel files and powerpoints that spell out what each tier does and how much aether it takes to move up in tiers.
I thought about disclosing some of it in the back matter of the book but decided against it in the end. I like my magic systems about 80/20 on the hard/soft scale. I need a bit of wiggle room to work in cool things I think of along the way and if I published too much of the facts and figures behind it, I think I’d eliminate some of that freedom.
Each tier and what they can do will be explored more in subsequent books as the team levels up and Sam meets people who are “aetherologists”. I will also go into what other races different from humans (Nartareens for example) can do with aether. All will be revealed in good time.
Rowenson: Oh, man. I was really hoping to hear more about the differences between the tiers. But I understand wanting to hold onto potential plot spoilers.
You said it takes specific quantities of aether to move up the ranks. We see a bit of that in the book, but I can only imagine how much power a person needs to reach Inferno status. What does that much aether do to a person? Are there any negative side effects on the individual’s health, emotional capacity, or mental facilities?
Mike: The “cost” of using aether is a bit more subtle than other magic systems. Rather than that drive the user insane, turning them evil, or something like that, using aether automatically makes you more vulnerable to people with more aether.
If you use it to control multiple objects or placidate animals then you run the risk divesting too much aether and dropping an aether tier, thus losing certain aether abilities. Aether can always be used to deplete an equivalent amount of someone else’s aether. Therefore, by expending too much of my aether, I automatically increase the likely hood of someone more powerful depleting my aether reserves.
Rowenson: Very cool. I can see how this would demand individuals to carefully monitor and balance their aether reserves. That explains why some people in Avalon try so hard to hoard as much aether as possible. Small wonder they find drainers like Sam so terrifying.
After reading the book and talking to you about it, it reminds me a lot of the Biochromatic Breath from Brandon Sanderson’s novel War Breaker. Did you defer to Sanderson’s Laws of Magic much while building your magic?
The scale between hard and soft magic is always something I think about. The idea that you can’t solve problems with soft magic, you can only use it to further complicate things, appeals very strongly to me. While I reserve the right to have a bit of mystery and “soft” aspects of my magic, I want it defined enough that I NEVER use it as a deus ex machina.
I take care to ensure all my magic guns are displayed on the mantelpiece.
Rowenson: Good to know. Personally, I find the First Law of Magic is most useful while writing and editing the story. The Third Law of Magic is a great thing to keep on your mind while building a system, but it is his Second Law of Magic I find to be the most useful for the actual construction of a magic system. But that might just be me.
But back to Passage to Avalon. Throughout the story, we get to see all kinds of cool magic on display. Everything from enhanced healing, enhanced speed, aether-grafting to replace body parts, fusing parts together in a mock hybrid of life, and more. Of all the things people can do with aether, which is your favorite?
Mike: I love the ability to combine animal species and make monstrous hybrids.
That, and Willow’s ability to disappear is fun to play with. I actually planned it becoming a running gag for the entire book, but then I was able to use it as a plot element toward the end of the book, which I think turns out great.
Rowenson: I agree. That whole “wait… what?” moment between her and Sam was priceless.
Of the abilities in Avalon, which would you most like to have for yourself? Which would you be most frightened for someone else to have?
Mike: That’s easy. Healing for myself and hybridization for others. That hybrid stuff is just wrong, man. Straight up wrong.
Rowenson: Yeah, but that was also one of my favorite parts. Granted, I really like that kind of creepy stuff in my books.
There is one other thing I noticed while reading the book. Aether seems to be literally everywhere in Avalon. The forests, the bandits, even the berries store aether. Is aether truly so pervasive through all of Avalon or is that just the pieces we get to see?
Mike: Aether exists throughout Avalon. It is concentrated in certain areas, formations, and materials, but it permeates all of Avalon. I mentioned briefly about “naturally occurring aether springs” and that proximity to these springs is a key determining factor to where cities and villages are built. I will explore this a lot more in future books.
Rowenson: It’s so cool how you used aether springs to influence human civilization as much as any other natural resource. So far we’ve only talked about how people use aether. How do the animals of Avalon tap into and use this bountiful power source?
Mike: For most of them, it’s simply a background aspect of their lives. But certain, more advanced creatures will end up using it to fuel their unique powers.
Rowenson: If aether is such a fundamental element of the life in Avalon, where does it come from? Is it generated through the sheer existence of life, or is there some kind of cosmic aether stream running through Avalon?
Mike: The source of aether is going to be a huge reveal in the later books. All I can say is that there is an answer to that question and the answer isn’t just “it exists because I need it to for my plot.”
Rowenson: *sigh* Can’t fault you for keeping the spoilers in your pocket, I suppose. What about the availability of aether? Is it a finite resource in your world, or does it have some way of replenishing?
Mike: Again, I won’t give anything away here, but the total amount of aether in the world is always in flux. This will become more relevant later in the series.
Rowenson: Curses! More spoilers. The flux of magic and it’s how it affects the world is very interesting to me at the moment, especially with my recent post on Global Variables. I, for one, can’t wait to see more in the coming books.
Can you at least tell me what happens to the aether that Sam drains away?
Mike: Well, Sam thinks he deletes the aether from the person. He’s right about that. But he also thinks he deletes it for good; that is where he’s wrong. Can’t say much else, I’m afraid.
Rowenson: Drat. Well, thank you, Mike, for taking the time to talk to me about your book and your magic system. I really hope it does well.
Mike: Thanks for having me, Clark. It’s always fun talking magic with you.
Rowenson: Where can they find you and your book?
That’s all for now.
I hope that you got as much from this conversation as I did. I fully recommend Mike’s new book to any fans of middle-grade fiction. Next time we talk, it will be back to our usual discussion on magic systems. I’ll see you again in two weeks.