One of the most exciting aspects of worldbuilding in fantasy books is undoubtedly its magic system. It helps the world make sense, gives a limit to what power can do, and brings some of the most heart-pounding moments to the table, especially when two magic powers face against each other. But I digress. There are several basic types of magic systems you can see in a fantasy world, but I want to talk about one of the lesser-known ones. Today, we’re looking at books with magic systems based on art!
The beauty of these magic systems is that so many things are art. It’s a very subjective area. For at its core, art is a creative work that evokes feelings — and that can come in many shapes. Classically, there are the seven major art types: painting, sculpture, literature, architecture, music, cinema, and theater. But other things are art too. Like dance, weaving — and heck, even tea-making can be considered an art. Therefore, you can say that there are many types of magic systems based on art, depending on the art form. So for today’s list, not all books will fit a classic art type. But they will all definitely be artful.
So without further ado, let’s look at eight great fantasy books with magic systems based on art.
8 Books With Magic Systems Based on Art
A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin
Art type: Tea-making
This book has such a unique magic system. In it, the characters brew tea to get different magical effects. Brewing tea became a fine art in China during the Qing Dynasty, so I definitely feel like A Magic Steeped in Poison deserves its place on this list! The story follows a girl named Ning, who accidentally killed her mother by brewing a poison tea. The same tea is now threatening to kill her sister. So Ning travels to the imperial city for a chance at winning a tea-making competition in which the reward could save her sister’s life.
Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
Art type: General art
Shadowshaper is the perfect book for this topic because those who use magic can connect with spirits via art — be it a painting, music, or even stories. They can also bring that art to life. The story follows a girl named Sierra Santiago, who was looking forward to a fun, artsy summer. But everything changes when a zombie-like creature appears at a party, and her comatose grandfather starts apologizing over and over again. That’s how she discovers she’s a Shadowshaper, and can connect with spirits through making art. The only problem? Someone is trying to get rid of all the Shadowshapers — and it’s up to Sierra to save them before it’s too late.
Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
Art type: Pigments and painting
The art fantasy elements are more low-key in Phoenix Extravagant, but it still very much deserves its place on this list. That’s because it actually uses a magical pigment that you can paint on automatons to animate them in some way. The story follows Jebi, who just wants to paint. But fate has other plans: they are drafted by the Ministry of Armor to paint mystical sigils that animate their automaton soldiers. But this magical pigment has nefarious origins, and the Razanei government is hiding an ocean of horrifying crimes. So naturally, when Jebi finds out, they escape with a mighty mechanical dragon and plans to take the fight right to the government’s doorstep.
Magic Steps by Tamora Pierce
Art type: Dance & weaving
Not all magic comes from art in this fantasy series. But when it does, it’s pretty amazing. The main character weaves magic like a thread, while her new student can cast spells through dance. We follow Lady Sandrilene after she discovers a young boy using dance magic. She now has to become his teacher. But her lessons are more important than she ever thought, because only by combining their two powers can they defeat a mysterious and magical murderer that reduces a person’s essence to nothingness.
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
Art type: Drawing
Brandon Sanderson is a popular fantasy author, and his magic systems always stand out. This is one of his lesser-known books, but it has a fun magic system based on art! More specifically, The Rithmatist features people who can breathe life into chalk drawings. The story follows Joel, a boy who wants nothing more than to become a Rithmatist but can only watch from the sidelines. That is, until students at the Armedius Academy start to disappear — and Joel and his friend Melody are assigned to help a professor investigate. But what they find will change the future of Rithmatics forever.
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Art type: Music
Silvia Moreno-García’s debut is being released again, complete with a gorgeous new cover. In Signal to Noise, characters cast magic spells using one of my favorite art forms — music! The story follows Meche in two timelines. The first is in 1988, when she finds out she can cast spells using vinyl records. She and her friends use this new magic to change their lives. Then it jumps 21 years into the future, where we see Meche return home for her father’s funeral and memories of her past rise back to the surface.
Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi
Art type: Painting
Bitter is a beautiful prequel for Emezi’s Pet, and it also has a magic system based on art! In it, the main character can animate her drawings with a drop of her own blood. The story follows the titular Bitter, who is attending a school named Eucalyptus. It’s like a safe haven for her, even if injustice plagues the streets outside of it. Bitter wants to stay safe inside Eucalyptus’s walls, but her friends aren’t willing to keep quiet. So Bitter must decide where she belongs, and if she’s willing to pay the cost for helping the revolution.
The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
Art type: Weaving
Last but not least, weaving is a beautiful art form, and I love that this novella uses it to create such a unique magic system that has characters weaving different materials like sand and bone as if they were cloth. The Four Profound Weaves follows a weaver named Uiziya, who is looking for the master weaver to learn the final weave. Then there’s a nameless man who struggles to find where he belongs. The two travel together to find Benesret — but there’s a price for what they want out of Benesret, and it may be too high for them to pay.
Looking for more fantastical stories? Head over to our SFF archives to find all kinds of lists, quizzes, and essays full of magic.