Fantasy magazine

From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Societal Cost of Magic

What does magic cost?

Throughout my childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the answer to this question was rooted in the magic of Dungeons & Dragons, where a spell may cost an incantation, a few ingredients, and some energy from the spellcaster. To some extent, most modern magic systems derive their cost from one of these currencies—some form of specialized knowledge or language, some form of physical payment, and some of the magic user’s energy.

In service of narrative, there are valid reasons that many stories recycle the same magical costs. One is that they give the writer the ability to manage tension by having the magic fail at the most dramatic moments—by being unable to recall the desired knowledge, running out of ingredients, or being too tired. But all of these costs are calculated on an individual level, with magic treated as a power that an individual can harness and wield. In service of worldbuilding, treating magic as primarily an individual power is a missed opportunity. Instead, magic can be viewed as a resource, one with costs that must be paid by systems, societies, and cultures, far bigger than any individual’s abilities.

The idea of magic as a resource with social significance was skillfully articulated in a Twitter thread by World Fantasy Award winner Fonda Lee when discussing the magic in her groundbreaking trilogy, The Green Bone Saga.

“As a SFF writer, I depict magic as a resource. In this case, one that has to be found, dug up, processed, distributed, controlled, restricted, fought over, and imbued with ideas of spirituality and social values. Magic isn’t an easy ticket to equality.

“Who has access to the resource? Who controls its distribution? Who makes decisions about its use? In my story, it’s rare, requires years of extensive training to master its use, is kept within family clans, has potentially terrible side effects.

“Gender norms/patriarchy, geography, government, religion, history, values . . . all these things affect how any resource, magic included, is distributed and used in a society, fictional or not. Powerful magic users can be oppressed by those systems. (E.g.: the Broken Earth trilogy)

“When I see people suggesting there could be a silver bullet (like magic jade) that would automatically wipe away sexism or racism or put the most innately deserving on the top, I can only shake my head as I realize there must be people who believe that’s true about our own world.”

So allow me to revise the opening question:

Who does magic cost?

To quote a former US president, even wind farms “kill all the birds.” This specific statement is obviously untrue, but the notion that there are negative consequences to the harvesting of even infinite resources such as wind and sunlight is undeniable. The farming of any resource requires securing land—very frequently involving the displacement of residents who don’t have the power to oppose the land acquisition. Once that land is secure, it must be transformed into a farm—again, displacing residents, often plant or animal life.

Magic need not be any different. In my own forthcoming novella, The Lies of the Ajungo, magic is a precious resource, alongside water or iron, that the privileged take for granted and that the underprivileged suffer and die trying to secure. The abovementioned Green Bone Saga spends time in the jade mines, showing the reader the desperate and marginalized souls who make their meager living mining magical jade for already powerful, wealthy families.

But there is one text that most perfectly portrays the high societal cost of magic, and that is the masterwork manga/anime Fullmetal Alchemist (FMA).

For the uninitiated: FMA started as a Japanese manga series by Hiromu Arakawa that followed two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric. The magic of FMA, alchemy, has a fundamental law known as Equivalent Exchange—to obtain, something of equal value must be lost. Only a powerful artifact known as a Philosopher’s Stone allows an alchemist to circumvent the law of Equivalent Exchange. While on their journey to find a Philosopher’s Stone, the Elric Brothers learn a terrifying truth: a Philosopher’s Stone is created through the mass alchemizing of human souls.

So the question arises: How many people should suffer for the boys to get what they desire? Thankfully, our boys are heroes, and they refuse to commit or support genocide just to achieve their goals.

But this is only the first layer of the societal cost of alchemy in FMA. The second layer is exclusive to the 2003 anime adaptation (which deviated from the manga and the manga’s more faithful 2009 adaptation, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood), and is one of the main reasons I hold the 2003 anime above the 2009 anime (much to the outrage of many FMA fans—bring it on, I ain’t scared!).

In the 2003 series, alchemical power flows from a single source: a metaphysical gate that all alchemists access when trying to complete certain feats of alchemy. Yet this gate that is the source of all alchemy is also a gate to another world: our world. Yes, our actual reality. As in, the reality in which you are reading this essay.

Now why would a 2003 Japanese anime that takes place in a fictional reality suddenly need a gate that opens to the other side of the fourth wall?

Because where else would alchemy come from? In the same way that the powerful magic of the Philosopher’s Stone can only be gained through the transmutation of thousands of human souls, the power for alchemy itself—the entire reason why there exists the whimsical, colorful fictional world of Amestris that FMA takes place in—comes from the souls of those who die in our world.

This reveal was a seminal moment in my growth as a storyteller. It reinforces the story’s law of Equivalent Exchange in the most meaningful, metatextual way, a way that forces viewers to reckon with the very relationship they have with the text and to acknowledge a painful truth: most of the things you cherish come from the suffering of others. Whether it is the chocolates you buy on Valentines’s Day or the metals for your phone battery, we all exist within an ecosystem of sacrifice, pain, and suffering that the apex predators of this ecosystem are often blissfully unaware of.

Too often, the fantasy genre is criticized as simple escapism, with science fiction being lauded as the more “serious” wing of the speculative space. These criticisms aren’t worthy of rebuttal. But considering who must suffer for the existence of magic provides a more “serious” examination of magic as a whole and better centers the species, classes, or races that suffer endlessly to secure that resource for others, while likely never being able to know the joys of that resource for themselves.

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Moses Ose Utomi

Moses Ose Utomi

Moses Ose Utomi is a Nigerian-American fantasy writer and nomad currently based out of Honolulu, Hawaii. He has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and short fiction publications in Fireside Fiction and Purple Wall Stories. His debut books, Daughters of Oduma (Atheneum Books) and The Lies of the Ajungo (, will be coming out in early 2023. When he’s not writing, he’s traveling, training martial arts, or doing karaoke—with or without a backing track. You can follow him on Twitter, but he wouldn’t advise it.