The intricate magic system in Weave the Lightning is revealed as characters use it. For a concrete explanation up front, read on! (This contains world spoilers, but not plot spoilers.)
The Big Picture
Magic in Bourshkanya comes from storms. A mage forms weaves to shape the magic’s purpose then draws magic lightning into themselves, channeling that storm energy to crystalize the weaves’ magic inside an object. If the mage is skilled, the magic stabilizes, and the magical object can be used for years or even centuries by other mages.
Not all storms carry magic. The storms that do, bozhskyeh storms, occur on a cycle, lasting roughly 50 years. Between storm cycles, about 150 years pass during which storms carry only mundane electricity.
When Weave the Lightning begins, Bourshkanya is only about 70 years into the off-cycle. But one of the most powerful mage organizations, the Storm Guard, recently predicted an early return of the bozhskyeh storms. Due to the storms’ early and sudden return, very few mages have been trained to create new magic (as opposed to using magic left over from previous storm cycles.)
Creating New Magic
Creating magic is like creating pottery. To make a good pot, you need quality clay, a skilled potter, and a kiln to fire the pot to hold its shape. You also need somewhere to work. What this analogy doesn’t capture is the danger. Translating this analogy, we have a mage’s basic toolkit:
- Sousednia (the neighboring reality of needs and idea) – the potter’s studio
- Nuzhda (a desperate need) – the clay
- Weaves (controlled resonances in the nuzhda) – how the mage shapes the pot
- Storm Energy (magical lightning that the mage channels, aka Gods’ Breath) – the kiln
Sousednia, a “neighboring reality” of needs and ideas, is where a mage goes to create magic. People with a strong enough storm-affinity (magical ability) see sousednia as a rich second world on top of their regular reality (and can use it in interesting ways outside of creating magic). They need to be trained to control it, or it can overwhelm them. Built of needs and ideas, sousednia takes a different form for everyone.
A nuzhda is a desperate need… like a need to fight an overwhelming foe, or not starve, or heal a dying loved one. Here comes one of the psychic risks: to create magic, you have to be desperate. Learning to be desperate at will takes training… and sort of breaking your mind.
But being desperate isn’t enough. A mage must control that desperation, creating resonances within it: nuzhda weaves. This could mean weaving the need to fight into steel, so a rusty paring knife will slice armor like butter. It could mean weaving strength into a defensive wall so that it will hold against an invading army, or giving the need to hide a resonance that lets a necklace make someone invisible.
Once a mage has pulled on their nuzhda and shaped that desperate need into weaves that fit the object they want to imbue with magic, they call down magical lightning—Gods’ Breath. This means they need to be standing beneath a bozhskyeh storm (or there won’t be any Gods’ Breath). Getting struck with Gods’ Breath dumps storm energy into the mage, who channels that energy into their nuzhda weaves. If they built their weaves right and cling to their control during the overwhelming experience of being hit with lightning, then the storm energy crystalizes the magic inside the object.
And there are just so many ways it can go wrong…
Storm mages talk about the Category of an imbuement to indicate its strength and quality. Magic Categories start at one and increase with ascending number, each category ten times stronger than the one below.
The Nuzhda Category is how strong a need was used in creating the imbuement (how much “clay” went into making the “pot”). To activate this imbuement, another mage must pull on a nuzhda of the same type and strength (category) as was used to create it.
The Imbuement Category indicates how complex and powerful the imbued object’s magic is (how nice a “pot” was made). This gives a sense for the quality or size of the effect this object creates when activated.
Ideally, the nuzhda and imbuement categories will match. A mage has to pull exactly as hard as necessary on a desperate need in order to produce the desired effect with the imbuement. But getting those to line up takes skill and training.
It’s a lot easier to make a pot that doesn’t break when it’s used if its walls are relatively thick (the Nuzhda Category is too high). If you make the walls too thin (the Imbuement Category is higher than the Nuzhda Category), then the pot won’t survive firing (the imbuement will shatter when the mage tries to crystalize their weaves with storm energy). If the Nuzhda Category is too much higher than the Imbuement Category, though, it may not be worth a mage enduring the psychic risk of pulling against a desperate need for a low-level magical effect.
Mages in Bourshkanya – Bozhki
The State tests children for magical ability (storm-affinity). Children with a storm-affinity are placed in State-sponsored schools, where they’re taught to use magic (along with a healthy dose of State propaganda and a generally good education). The Storm Guard Academy is one of the most prestigious of these schools, with a focus on training mages for the military.
Mages are known as bozhki (singular: a bozhk) once they’ve proven a nominal level of skill in testing. The bolt-levels that indicate skill go: copper, silver, and gold in increasing level of strength and control. If someone with a storm-affinity fails their copper bolt test, they wash out of training with a black bolt, but typically still have some status in society from the mere fact of having tested with a storm-affinity.
The higher a bozhk’s bolt-level, the more they can expect to rise in society, regardless of their background.