The beginning of a novel that I’ll doubtless never write

Advance warning: This post is fiction. I had a fun idea and I needed to make word count, so I thought I’d write it up. However it’s not short fiction. It’s just a fragment of a larger story that will probably never get finished.

Other advance warning: Note that I’m not actually very good at writing fiction. In particular dialogue is not a skill I’ve ever been good at and some of the conversation in this piece really shows that. This is somewhere between an exposition dump and a first draft level of quality.

I’ve always wanted to be a wizard.

I think part of it is that I grew up in a library. My parents are scholars, and it always felt like this was basically like being wizards but worse. They had the silly robes, the books, the slightly distracted look, they just didn’t have the power.

I really wanted the power. I wanted to make a difference.

Which is why every year since I turned twelve I turned up for the testing.

If you’ve never been to a testing: They sit you down in front of a crystal ball, you have about a minute to stare at it and try to make it glow. If you’re wizard material it looks like staring at a bright flame. Most people can barely manage a glimmer.

I thought I managed a glimmer once, but it was just reflected sunlight. The rest of the time the crystal just sat there completely dead, taunting me.

Every time I hoped it would be different. Maybe it was just taking a long time to manifest? It does with some people. It was never different.

And then it was.

It was the last chance I had – after you’re 18 they won’t test you – but for once I wasn’t nervous. Some time, about six months ago, I woke up and the world looked different – sharper, brighter, and as if everything was suffused with a gentle glow. Since then the struggle has been to not cast spells. Kettles have boiled before I put them on the stove, the object I was searching for came flying to my hands, and countless other small incidents. I wanted something to happen, and then it happened.

When I sat down in front of the crystal I did feel a little nervous. I knew this time would be different, but what if it wasn’t?

I needn’t have worried. The crystal blazed like the sun. I was going to be a wizard.

The testing is only the beginning of course. After that they whisk you away to the college and put you through the wringer. They invade your mind – making sure you’re not a spy, that your intentions are good, and that you have a personality they think they can trust with magic. Most people make it through this stage, but a good quarter of people who pass testing just quietly disappear.

This stage had me rather more nervous. With good reason as it turned out, though in the end I made it through without a problem.

At the end of the day I had a set of apprentice robes, a room of my own (hardly more than space for a bed and a cupboard, but it sufficed) and the most complete sense of exhaustion I had ever experienced in my life.

I lay down on the bed and passed out almost immediately. But first, a single thought crossed my mind: Well that went about as well as we could possibly have hoped for.

And then I slept, and I remembered.


Six months ago I’d woken up to find a strange man in my room. Naturally, I shrieked. Who wouldn’t?

Then I noticed the robes and the rings. The man was obviously a wizard. My concern immediately turned to excitement. Was he here to tell me it had all been a mistake? That I had some sort of secret power the testing couldn’t have picked up and that he wanted to take me as his apprentice?

Then it turned back to concern. A lot of wizards are… not nice people, and the fact that the strange man who appeared in your bedroom in the middle of the night has power beyond your imagining and is basically untouchable by all earthly recourse is not actually a reassuring thought when you think about it.

“Don’t worry, Asha, I’m not here to hurt you”. He smiled in a way that someone who didn’t really know how to give a reassuring smile might do when they wanted to do so anyway. It did not entirely achieve its aims.

“I am Kelmir, and I’m here to offer you a deal. First I must know: Do you know how to accept a wizard’s oath?”

I nodded wordlessly. My parent had made sure of it – between my interest in magic and our proximity to the college they thought it was important I learned all the arcane etiquette.

“Very well”.

He took a ring off his finger, placed it in the palm of his hand and reached it out to me. I clasped his hand and felt the magic take hold.

“I am Kelmir, a mage of the collegium. As witnessed here, I swear by my life, my soul and my magic that all words I shall speak no lies to Asha, either by commission or omission. I shall tell him everything I think he needs to know and answer all his questions without reserve. If he does not agree to the terms I offer I shall wipe his memory of this entire event, but I shall not otherwise cast any spells upon him or offer harm to those he cares about without his complete and uncoerced consent. I am bound by these words”.

There was a glow around him as he said the final words, the ring grew hot in between our hands, and I felt a complete certainty that all of this was true.

If I was concerned before, now I was terrified. I’m sure a binding oath to cause no harm should be reassuring but I couldn’t imagine any circumstances which required something of that magnitude. I probably looked like I was about to pass out. Kelmir either didn’t notice or decided the best cure was to press on.

“First I must tell you one important thing: The wizard oath when offered to a non wizard may as well be a lie. If you had training and power it would be impossible to fake, but to someone such as yourself it would if anything be easier for me to create an illusion of the oath than to offer a true one. However I have actually offered you a true oath, which compels me to say this.”

I blinked.

“Uh. Is that supposed to make me trust you more or less?”

He grimaced. “To be honest I wasn’t planning to tell you that at all, but once the oath took hold I realised it would be a lie of omission not to tell you”.

That actually helped.

“The second thing I must tell you is that I believe you to be completely without magic and your dream of becoming a wizard is a futile one without my assistance. May I cast a spell on you to find out?”

Being told that felt like being punched in the gut. I had already known it was probably true, but I hadn’t wanted to admit it and resented being told. I nodded.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more explicit than that”

I swallowed. “I give you my explicit consent to cast a spell on me to determine if I have the potential to be a wizard”.

He put his hand on my head and I briefly saw double. He withdrew it, and the world returned to normal.

“It’s as I thought. No magic at all. As things stand, you can never be a wizard”

“As… as things stand?”

“I’m here to offer you a way, but it comes at a price”
“I accept”

He grimaced.

“No you don’t. I need you to understand the way the world works first. You have to understand what it is I’m trying to do here, and you have to agree to my goals with that full understanding. This can’t work any other way”

“I don’t care what you’re asking for. I’ve always wanted to be a Wizard. I’ll do anything”

He gave me a searching look and nodded decisively.

“Alright then”.

My heart leapt.

“The first thing we have to do is kill your parents”

I froze.

“I… uh. I guess I was wrong. I don’t want to be a wizard that much”.

“Good. This would have been a very short conversation if you had. Now stop being an idiot and listen to what I have to say before you agree to anything.”

I put on my best contrite expression.

“Now. How many wizards do you think there are in the college?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a few hundred?”

“Yes, that’s about right. Now, why are there so few?”

“Well, hardly anyone has magic. Less than one in a hundred I guess? And there aren’t more than twenty thousand people near here, so that sounds about right?”

“And why are there only twenty thousand people near here?”

“Well, how could we feed much more than that? We get famines occasionally as it is! Also the last plague killed a lot of us. I think maybe there were more like 30,000 back then?”

“And why are there plagues and famines?”

I was getting increasingly confused by this line of questioning.

“I don’t really know? The priests say the gods send them to punish us, my parents say it’s just the natural order of things”

“And do you know of anyone who is able to change the natural order of things?”

That gave me pause. Of course I’d fantasised about making things better when I was a wizard, but somehow I’d never made the connection that there were all these wizards already and they weren’t actually doing anything to make things better.

“OK. I get it. So, tell me. Why don’t wizards prevent the famines and the plagues?”

“It’s really very simple: We don’t prevent the famines and the plagues because we want there to be famines and plagues”.

I’m not sure how long I sat there completely poleaxed, but eventually he figured I wasn’t going to be able to ask an intelligible question and continued.

“As far as the college is concerned, the status quo is pretty near perfect. We have a stable world in which we’re at the top. Why should we try to change that? If there were more people, the balance of power might shift, and if there were more wizards then each individual wizard would be less powerful because there would be more of us to split the power amongst. So we keep the world as it is: Every generation we get more powerful and the rest of you stay the same.”

“That’s… that’s monstrous”

“I quite agree. Which is why I want to you to help me change it”

“What can I do? You just said I have no magic”

“A wizard can pass on their magic before they die. Normally this is spread amongst a small number of their successors, which is how we accumulate power. I propose to pass it on to you instead.”

“Why me? What’s the catch?”

“Why you is because you are idealistic enough that I believe you will share my goals, and desperate enough that I believe you will accept the, as you put it, catch. My power will come alone: I will also be giving you my mind. At first I will be there as a voice in your head, but over time I think it likely that we will start to share thoughts and memories, and eventually we will become one person.”

“So I won’t be me any more?”

“Think of it as just a more extreme form of how you’ll change over time anyway. I think we are compatible enough that you won’t find the changes too objectionable”.

We talked for a lot longer than that, but the outcome was never in doubt. I accepted his life, and his magic, and then he showed me how to bury the memories so deeply that the tests at the school would never find them.

I woke up the morning after the tests feeling refreshed. The memory blocks were gone, and I knew exactly where we were and who we were.

Do you remember the plan? Kelmir asked me.

Oh yes. I remembered the plan rather well. Play the part of a powerful, intelligent, but very inexperienced student. Make alliances with anyone who could be persuaded that change was essential, or at least persuaded to acquiesce to it. Deal with the rest. If necessarily, permanently.


So that’s it for now. As mentioned I will probably never actually write more on this. We’ll see.

As you can probably tell this is a thinly veiled analogue about entrenched capital, and it doesn’t even attempt to veil that it’s about how shit being in a feudal society is, it’s just that there are wizards instead of lords.

Essentially this is mostly a reaction to the fact that I enjoy wizard school books but find their politics almost uniformly terrible.


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One thought on “The beginning of a novel that I’ll doubtless never write

  1. Michael Chermside

    > this is mostly a reaction to the fact that I enjoy wizard school books but find their politics almost uniformly terrible.

    I’m sure this is unnecessary, but just in case I wanted to mention the story Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality which is a tale of a wizard school that does an EXCELLENT job of addressing the ethical implications of the feudal society. Plus, it is a fabulous read, which I predict you would enjoy. And the tale is nearly complete: in one week the final chapter is scheduled to be released — making this a perfect time for a re-read, even if you are already familiar with it.

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