Magic as a concept has been with us for as long as our history records, and there was a time when it undoubtedly seemed real—a visceral, undeniable explanation for all manner of phenomenon. As civilization advanced and science asserted itself, the presence of magic has receded from our everyday lives, which has only intensified its presence in our imaginations. Clearly we want magic to be real, and to heck with the scientific method. Still, sometimes a more compelling approach for a story is to assert that magic was real, but has faded or been destroyed—as happens in these eight books.
An Unkindness of Magicians, by Kat Howard
Magic is quite real is the New York City of Kat Howard’s remarkable sophomore novel. Those who wield it align themselves to Houses, the most powerful of which have existed for a century or more, and use their special skills and influence to control the mundane world—and live like royalty. But there is a price to be paid for power—every generation, there is a Turning, where a magician from each house must compete in a tournament of magical skill, sometimes to the death, that a new House may be selected to lead. But upheavals during the latest Turning—which came earlier than anyone expected—seem to point to something rotten at the heart of magic itself. Sometimes, it doesn’t come when called on. Others, a spell goes haywire, with unpredictable, fatal results. To say too much about how this contentious, politically fraught society functions would spoil the dark delights of this book—and spoil the mystery its protagonist, a staggeringly powerful woman unaffiliated to any house, must solve if she’s to correct a great injustice and set things right.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Stephenson and Galland offer up one of the most intriguing concepts in modern SFF: magic is real, but it functioned by selecting alternate realities that suited the magician’s purpose and bringing it to the fore— as good a mechanic for magic as any we’ve ever encountered (John Scalzi used a similar method for engineering faster-than-light interstellar travel). Why doesn’t magic exist today? Simple: photography—and, more broadly, all modern technology—was invented. With reality able to be anchored and fixed, alternate versions of it could no longer be imposed. That’s a fantastic concept—and it’s just one small part of this sprawling story that combines magic, time travel, government conspiracies, and linguistic translation into a story that doesn’t just suspend disbelief, it more or less eradicates it.
Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory
This isn’t a typical End of Magic story—or a typical story in any way. The Telemachus family once made waves by demonstrating mental powers—astral projection, telekinesis, predicting the future. Then one day, their act is debunked on live television, their matriarch dies, and the family enters a lengthy decline. But do they actually have amazing powers? Buddy Telemachus seems to be able to see bits of the future, but all of his visions end on a specific date, implying either the end of all things, or the end of his psychic powers—or possibly just the end of Buddy. This sprawling family history weaves a fistful of plot threads that converge on one epic day, and finding out whether the magic was ever real, and if it will survive, is more than enough reason to read all the way to the end.
The Magic Goes Away, by Larry Niven
The stories in this collection pivot on a simple but effective idea, straight out of a role playing video game: magic is fueled by a very real and very finite resource, known as mana. As magical spells are cast, mana is consumed—and as mana runs out, magic dwindles. As the energy crises in the real world made headlines, Niven returned to this concept and made the parallels more explicit, but the stories set in this universe all center on the basic problem: managing a limited resource on which the entire world depends for its normal functioning—an idea Piers Anthony, er, borrowed for his Apprentice Adept universe.
The Secret of the Sixth Magic, by Lyndon Hardy
Hardy’s brilliant trilogy is set in a universe where magic is initially divided into five regimented disciplines (Thaumaturgy, Alchemy, Magic, Sorcery, and Wizardry), each with its own rules and effects—for example, wizards summon demons using science-like rules governing the fuels burned to produce the flames that bridge the physical realm with the demon realm. In the second book, The Secret of the Sixth Magic, magic appears to be fading and behaving erratically, sowing chaos in a world based on its function. The explanation for what’s going on isn’t exactly the End of Magic—it’s even more interesting than that.
The Charwoman’s Shadow, by Lord Dunsany
One of the earliest fantasy novels ever published—so early, in fact, that the term wasn’t yet used to describe such books—this story of a magician seeking a worthy apprentice ends with weddings and romance. At the same time, it ends with the magician leaving the country—and the world itself—and taking all the magic with him as he does so, effectively single-handedly ending the Age of Magic. Published in 1926, the list of SFF writers who counted it as one of their earliest influences is pretty long, and proves the concept has been with us a very long time.
The Shannara series, by Terry Brooks
In Brooks’ Shannara universe, science and magic alternate dominance in a cycle; as one rises, the other fades. That doesn’t mean the magical Four Lands—actually a far-future Earth after a nuclear holocaust, though those details exist only in the background for most of the series—isn’t littered with the remnants of our modern technological age (some of which still function, or have been adapted magically), or that magic has won the day: the current phase of magic explicitly ends at one point in the narrative as science reasserts itself, only to have the cycle artificially disrupted, bringing magic back (along with a host of unexpected consequences).
The Source of Magic, by Piers Anthony
While the latter entries in Anthony’s infinite series about the Florida-shaped country of Xanth—where every citizen is born with a single magical talent of varying usefulness and intensity—have been lighthearted, pun-soaked affairs, the first dozen or so were a tad more grounded. The Source of Magic was a direct sequel to the award-winning A Spell for Chameleon, and had hero Bink forced into a quest for the literal source of the magic that fueled Xanthian society—a quest he successfully completes, resulting in the sudden departure of that source and a bleak moment in Xanth history, known in-universe as The Time of No Magic (gee, how’d they come up with that one?). Half the fun is the resulting utter chaos that sweeps Xanth when its magic disappears. Since there have been about 40 more Xanth novels since, you can place your bets as to whether or not magic returns.