D.B. Jackson’s THIEVES’ QUARRY
Lots of authors go by multiple names. Case in point — David B. Coe and D.B. Jackson. David is my friend, a person I first met online, then met in real life — we’ve shared long, heartfelt discussions about writing, reading, Indian food… You know — all the important things in life.
D.B. Jackson is David’s alter-ego. D.B. writes urban fantasy novels — but they’re not like any urban fantasy novels you’ve read before. I’d tell you more, but D.B. says it better himself. So, without further ado….
In less than a week, on July 2, the second book in my Thieftaker Chronicles, Thieves’ Quarry, will be released by Tor Books. The Thieftaker books are historical urban fantasies. My hero, Ethan Kaille, is a conjurer and thieftaker (sort of an 18th century private investigator) living in Boston in the 1760s, as the North American colonies are beginning to chafe at British rule. Each book is a stand-alone mystery and each takes place against the backdrop of some key event leading to the Revolution. The first book in the series, Thieftaker, was set during the Stamp Act riots of 1765. Thieves’ Quarry takes place in the autumn of 1768, as the British are about to begin their military occupation of the city.
As the release date for the book approaches, I find myself writing a lot of blog posts and discussing the Thieftaker novels at length in interviews. Most of the time, people want to hear about the historical elements of the stories, or the novelty of combining mystery with fantasy. And that’s great. I like talking about that stuff. But I also love to discuss magic systems, and how I go about creating them. So when Mindy suggested that her readers might be interested in hearing about that as well, I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity.
As I developed the magic system for the Thieftaker series, I tried to find a balance between following a set of old rules and bringing an innovative approach to conjuring. The result is a form of magic that is powerful enough to make for interesting plot points, but limited enough to ensure that my protagonist will have to rely as much on his wits as on his magic.
I began with what I believe to be the three ironclad laws of creating magic systems. Obviously, if your magic systems don’t follow these guidelines, that’s okay; these are my laws. But in my mind they are crucial, no matter the world for which I’m creating my system.
First, my magic follows a set of rules that remains consistent throughout the book. My goal in creating a magic system is to come up with something that feels as real and natural and rooted in the world I’ve created as a natural law of our own world. I want my magic to seem as irrevocable and constant as the law of gravity. As soon as the rules of magic begin to shift or soften according to narrative needs, the magic ceases to be a realistic part of the worldbuilding and becomes instead a plot device, and a transparent one at that.
Second, my magic is limited in scope and power. Magic that can do anything and everything, that can’t be defeated, is destined to take over a story or series. At least that has been my experience. By placing limits on what my magic can do, I force my characters who have magic to rely as much on their intelligence and physical skills as they do their spells. In my opinion, that makes for more interesting characters and storytelling. So Ethan can only cast so many spells before he begins to tire and weaken. His spells can do some pretty cool stuff — among other things, he can heal wounds, he can change the shape of matter, he can move unseen among those who do not have magic — but he can’t, say, make himself fly or move through time. Magic is a tool, even a weapon at times. But it is not all powerful.
And third, the use of magic in my world exacts some cost. As I mentioned before, the casting of spells takes a physical toll. But more than that, each spell Ethan casts has to be fueled by something. The simplest spells can be fueled by the elements — water, air, earth, fire — but more complicated magic demands blood or something else from a living organism. And the most powerful and complex spells can require the taking of a life. Finally, as Ethan learns during the course of THIEFTAKER, spells can carry emotional costs as well.
After establishing the framework for my magic system with these guidelines in mind, I could then turn to the fun part of creating a magic system: Mixing it in with my other narrative elements — setting, character, and plot.
My primary goal in creating a conjuring system for the Thieftaker books was to come up with something that was not only cool, but that also blended well with my colonial setting. Of course there were (as far as history can tell us) no conjurers in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. But there were witch scares, the most famous of which, the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, led to the imprisonment of 150 “witches” and the execution of twenty men and women.
I wanted my hero to face the possibility of persecution for his conjuring, because I knew that would add tension to the novel, and so I created a magic system that could be confused with witchcraft by people of the time. Ethan’s magic appears to the unsuspecting to come out of nowhere; he doesn’t need a magical stone or a staff or any other physical tool to conjure, although for some spells he does need to spill his own blood. But that only adds to the whole “dabbling in the black arts” feel of the magic. He also has to commune with the ghost of one of his magical ancestors, who gives him access to the power laden realm between the world of the living and the domain of the dead. Once more, the notion of “communing with spirits” plays on images of witchcraft that show up in seventeenth and eighteenth century texts. So, while in my version of 1760s Boston there is no such thing as witchcraft, conjurers are constantly being accused of being witches, and Ethan lives in fear of being hanged as a witch.
In this way, I was able to create a magic system for the Thieftaker Chronicles that would not undermine my efforts to make the books feel historically authentic, but rather would reinforce those historical elements. The magic — and the fear it provokes from the people of Colonial Boston — also deepens Ethan’s character by making his ability to cast spells, which is the source of his strength, potentially his greatest weakness as well. And the magic system serves as a never-ending source of plot points. In other words, it blends with those key narrative elements I mentioned before: Setting, character, and plot. And I also think that it’s pretty cool. As I writer, I really can’t ask for more than that.
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasy, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, came out in 2012 and will soon be available in paperback. The second volume, Thieves’ Quarry, will be released on July 2, just in time for the July 4th holiday. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
You can find D.B. online just about everywhere: