Fantasy where magic exists but is rare

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart (sp?) - I can only think of 2 actual sorcerers in it, there are some ghosts & monsters and demigods, but on the whole the plot is driven by riddles and human interactions, not magic.

I don’t think that’s quite right. First off, there are more than five Adepts; Blue largely relies on rhyming incantations (and so winds up in serious trouble when Orange magically silences him), sure as Green uses mystical gestures – and Red crafts magic amulets, and Tan has the evil eye, and Yellow brews potions, and Brown animates golems, and White does rune magic, and so on for Black and Purple and even Translucent. Second, there’s also the Book of Magic, which lets a succession of other folks cast spells. Third, it’s a realm of shapeshifting unicorns who can radiate antimagic effects from their horns – unless one has the shapeshifting Platinum Flute, which can radiate ***anti-***anti-magic.

(And, like the man said about The Hobbit, you can find a mighty dragon sure as trolls are petrified by sunlight and were-creatures abound – plus ghosts and vampires and one-per-customer infallible prophecies from the oracle.)

Anything by K.J. Parker. Even after he introduces the magic, it remains unclear whether it’s magic or not.

The True Game by Sherri S. Tepper

At first it seems like pretty much everyone has a magical ability to some degree but it becomes apparent that they all boil down to a combination of 9 basic types of psionic-type power - telekinesis, levitation, coercion etc.

Eventually we discover that there are tiny secretive groups of people who use actual spells, with the traditional verbal, material, and somatic components.

As far as i can remember only one person powerful enough to be called a magician.

The movie LadyHawke features one curse and its undoing, although the effects of it appear throughout the film. That’s not much magic, and, in fact, there’s not even a sorceror or agician in the film, and you don’t see the curse being struck.

Similarly, Dragonslayer has only one magician and an aprentice. There’s not a huge amount of magic. But there’s a dragon.

I just reread the Darwath books because I remembered liking them in high school - they remain awesome, by the way.

Most of the mages are already dead when we get to the story, yes. But two of the main characters are magic users and the enemy is “magical”, sort of. And there’s all this ancient magic stuff lying around.

I wish she’d write some more in that world that doesn’t suck. I recall both Mother of Winter and Icefalcon’s Quest being awful, so I didn’t reread those.

Most variations of the King Arthur legend have one or two people who can do magic (Merlin and Morgan le Fay for example), but it is very rare. I think Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave series fits the example, and even in that story Merlin relies on illusion and chemistry as much as supernatural ability.

Kay’s two preceding books, *A Song for Arbonne *and *The Lions of Al-Rassan, *have even less magic; in fact, in the latter of the two, the sole supernatural phenomenon is a psychic link between a pair of identical twins. You should check them out - they’re arguably as good as the Mosaic, and have a very similar pseudo-historic style.

They are definitely on my to-read list. Along with about 600 other books. I need to get crackin’! :smiley:

A lot of examples have been given but if you were interested in further research on your own, what you are looking for is known as Low Fantasy.

I’d say the Conan stories are relatively low magic.

Nevermind, beaten to the punch.

Arthur C Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The elves (& the dwarves, I think) had ancient skills that mere humans might consider magical–some of which were being lost. Either because the world was changing or they were just less interested in Making Stuff.

Even though Gandalf could do magic–his major role was just being wise…

Another vote for this series. While it started with short stories and novellas, there are also two fairly lengthy novels, mostly set in the Southern California of 12,000 years ago. The first novel is, needlessly, quite the door-stopper. According to wiki, a third one, Burning Mountain, is supposedly in progress.

In the original 3 movies, that’s true. In the prequel movies alone, you have hundreds, if not thousands, of Jedi. The Expanded Universe (novels, comic books, video games, etc.) adds even more, as well as other Force-using traditions beyond the Jedi and the Sith.

The original Robert E. Howard stories, true. Not so much the “Savage Sword of Conan” comic, where if there’s a demon-haunted ruin ANYWHERE in a land, Conan will find it.

There are also quite a few minor characters who are or who are potentially magicians. Some of them can’t do much more than make a light or light a fire, others are quite talented but deny their potential because the Church regards magic as a tool of Satan. One of the problems that Rudy has in courting his lady is that he CANNOT marry her, it’s illegal for mages to marry (this is also law in the Windrose chronicles). But there’s plenty of magic in the Darwath world, both human and otherwise. In fact, there’s a huge arcology that runs on magic and the life force of magicians. A great many mages are dead, this is true, but there are still quite a few magicians that are alive and active at the time of the story.

I liked Mother of Winter and Icefalcon’s Quest, but they are definitely lesser books.

Dragonsbane is an excellent book, but don’t read its sequels.

Pretty much anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, actually. I love his writing; “Under heaven” has got to be one of the best books I have ever read. It left me breathless and wanting more! His blend of history with traces of fantasy and mythology is amazing: he strikes the perfect balance between what his characters believe can be true, what can be true, and what might be true. Love Kay’s books!

“Little, Big” by John Crowley is arguably such a case, though it is about human beings who get involved in a faery event. The magic is all around, it permeates the story, but it only shows itself in tantalizing glimpses and bits at relatively rare points, in fact, some of the human characters don’t believe in it and one of them spends a lifelong quest to find concrete evidence of it. In the end, it manifests itself, fully and beautifully. Very good read.

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell * by Susanna Clarke would fill the bill here. Lots of people know that magic can be done (or had been done in the past) but no one actually does it. Until Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange show up as the first practical magicians in several hundred years.