R.S. Penney: Does Magic Run in Your Family?

In the Desa Kincaid series, magic is accessible to anyone. You don’t have to be born of a special bloodline or with some kind of genetic advantage. Anyone with a mind can find the Ether, the source of all magical power in Desa’s world. Even some animals can do it.

The Force belongs to everyone

This threw some readers for a loop as the concepts of “wizards and muggles” have become so commonplace that we no longer question this kind of world-building. When I was a kid, watching Star Wars for the first time, Obi-Wan Kenobi left me with the impression that the Force belonged to everyone. Communing with the Force was a matter of spiritual enlightenment. Han Solo’s inability to do so was not a result of some genetic lottery that he didn’t win. He explained his point of view in that scene where Luke practiced with a lightsaber for the first time. “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other; I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there is one all-powerful Force controlling everything.”

That line says a lot about Han. Take a moment and do the math: the Jedi have been gone for at most twenty years by this point. Han is about thirty. He’s old enough to remember a time when powerful space wizards fought in a galaxy-wide war. And yet he still doesn’t believe in the Force. Ultimately, it’s not his scepticism but his cynicism that prevents him from finding the enlightenment that would let him do the things that Luke and Obi-Wan do. This was my view of the Force until I was about sixteen years old.


In the spring of 1999, George Lucas released The Phantom Menace, and the rules changed. Qui-Gon Jinn found a boy with an incredible affinity for the Force. And he didn’t confirm this by testing Anakin’s perceptions or his emotional awareness; no, he took a blood test. On May 19 of 1999, we learned that the ability to use the Force was a matter of having a sufficient number of microscopic organisms living in your bloodstream. It was a genetic lottery, determined for each person before they were even born. Have lots of midichlorians? Then strong in the Force, you will be. But if you don’t have those little critters in your bloodstream, then it’s blasters and body armour for you.

Harry Potter: Born with Magic

In Harry Potter’s world, magic is also something you’re just born with; either you have it, or you don’t. And if you don’t win the genetic lottery, then no amount of study or practice will ever let you ride on broomsticks or play Quiddich. I’ve always hated this idea. It pops up everywhere. In The Wheel of Time, in Mistborn, in Babylon 5 and the X-Men comics.

I think it says something about our culture that this is a narrative we accept so easily, that this is a narrative we defend whenever it is challenged. Look at the negative reaction to the new Star Wars trilogy, specifically to the revelation that Rey’s parents were no one important. She’s the Chosen One, but she doesn’t come from a special bloodline. That bothers people. Think about what that means. It’s a holdover from a time when we believed that nobles and aristocrats made of better stuff than the common person.

Magic as Hierarchy

If an author creates a world where some people are born with special abilities while others are not, they are subtly indicating that some people are just better than others. It’s the Great Chain of Being, a medieval concept that says people can be sorted into a hierarchy with kings at the top and peasants at the bottom. Only in this fictional world, the hierarchy isn’t just a superstition, it’s scientific fact. Some people really are better than others. They have abilities their peers can never have. There is the subtle suggestion that wizards and muggles – mutants and humans, telepaths and mundanes – aren’t even the same species. Hell, in X-Men, mutants are literally called “homo-superior.” They are described as the next step in human evolution.

I’ve always preferred the notion that magic is like any other skill. People sometimes ask me, “If anyone can do magic in your stories, why doesn’t everyone do it?” The answer is pretty simple. Just about anybody can sit down at a piano and tap the keys; so, why aren’t we all concert pianists? Because, like any other skill, it takes years of practice to become competent and decades to become a virtuoso. Not everybody’s interested. Add to that the fact that in certain parts of the world, magic is seen as something unholy, and you can see why many people wouldn’t want to put in the time and effort.

Some people learn faster than others

Like any other skill, some people learn faster than others. Some people look at a complex equation and instantly know how to solve it; others read the textbook over and over before it finally sinks in. It’s the same with magic. And yes, there is still an element of luck in that, but the distinction between “wizard” and “muggle” is not a hard binary. It’s a lot murkier. Not everyone will become a chess master, but almost anyone can learn to play the game. They can learn the basics, and with practice, they can get better. In Desa’s world, not everyone will become a master Field Binder, but just about anyone can learn the theory. And if they apply themselves, they might develop a talent for it.

There are many things I love about The Last Jedi, and one of those things is the film’s willingness to do away with the silly notion that everything in the Star Wars galaxy revolves around people from two or three bloodlines. (The Skywalkers, the Kenobis, the Palpatines). It’s time to move beyond this lazy world-building. There are many ways to explain why only some people have special powers that don’t require you to make it a genetic lottery.

The Justice Keepers

In my other series, the Justice Keepers also gain their powers from microscopic organisms that bond with their cells. Sound familiar? Well, there is one key difference. In The Justice Keepers Saga, those microscopic organisms are called Nassai; they are sentient. They choose their hosts. And what quality do they look for above all others? Selflessness. A willingness to sacrifice career, social status or material wealth to do what is right. That said, compassion and a level head will score you some points. It has to be genuine. The Nassai can scan through all of your memories in a matter of seconds; they’ll know if you’re faking.

Magical talent as something that you earn through dedication, hard work or a virtuous character: it’s a concept that scares a lot of people. Because it’s subversive. It challenges the very existence of a hierarchy, and that’s exactly what we need right now.

R.S. Penney is the author of the Justice Keepers Saga. His latest novel Desa Kincaid: Bounty Hunter, is currently available in paperback and ebook. Follow him on Twitter.

Photo and art design by Designacologist/Unsplash.