Magic as a misunderstood disaster engine is pretty routine with our fantasy worldbuilding friends. Identifying cosmically gifted individuals as something Other exists within the narratives of the fantastic as everything from plot-relevant physical division (like the Circle in Dragon Age) to garden-variety bigotry (like the witch-boy in Overlord II, for the six people that remember that absolute unit of a tale). Some characters think magic is dangerous, others just think it’s cheating, but almost without exception the magic users of any established world are treated like people who walk into work with blood and gooey bits on their hands; maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable, innocent, non-murder explanation, but the safe bet is to assume they started their day by throwing unsuspecting virgins into equally unsuspecting volcanoes.
Which is fair, since Mages of Mystralia begins with the red-haired Zia yeeting out of the town of Greyleaf after accidentally setting her entire house on fire. Because Zia, obviously, is a mage, and in Mystralia, this is a very big problem.
In the Before Time [crashing thunder], there were Mage Kings, kings that were mages, and kings that had magic (the poison specifically for Kuzco, Kuzco’s poison). Those possessing this gift were whisked away from their tiny, little villages and raised in the castle to be heirs and guardians and suspicious viziers. Then the goblins came and started wrecking shop, and one squirrelly moron named Aetius (first — and probably last — of his name) went looking for the Celestial Magic that you’re uber-super-not supposed to touch. He touched it, kept touching it, went crazy, and set the country on fire, ruining magery for everybody else. A slightly less squirrelly dude called the Marquis (the only one to survive stopping Aetius), then took over and made magery and anybody who practices it illegal. All the existing mages were killed or banished, and new mages, if they were found, were nixed on the spot.
Making unchangeable personal qualities illegal doesn’t solve things, however, because once every decade magic wakes up in somebody anyway — and this time, that person is Zia. So, the magic wakes up, sets her house on fire, and the citizens of Greyleaf take it upon themselves to throw her out since the Marquis is far away and doesn’t care about them anymore.
And so, the adventure begins.
After getting booted, Zia makes her way to the mage village of Haven, and on the way finds this objectively evil book in what looks like an abandoned altar…pillar…gateway…thing. It’s been here for a hot minute before she picks it up; it starts talking to her and teaching spells that her magery mentor (named Mentor) tells her a few minutes later she shouldn’t have yet, but he’s sure it’s fine.
This is objectively evil book — it has a smoky black speech bubble and everything — teaches spells and gives all kinds of historical context for the places Zia goes while looking for ways to keep a solar eclipse from ending the world. In particular, he says something that encapsulates the theme of Mages of Mystralia: the word “spellcraft.” Zia corrects him and says, “You mean magery.” He responds: “Magery is a word used by people who are afraid of the Marquis and his men. Spellcraft better describes what mages do. You should call things by their real name.”
The book isn’t the only one to talk about this. At the very beginning of the game, Mentor is sitting on a log in front of a safe house in the woods, saying that he’s going to start teaching Zia spellcraft — and then immediately corrects himself to “magery,” because Zia hears “spellcraft” and kind of loses her mind. “Fine, magery, then if that word scares you less.”
“Spellcraft” is a heavily stigmatized word in the universe of Mages of Mystralia, and the different ways in which the book and Mentor react to it are important. Mentor resigns himself to Zia’s fear of it, while the objectively evil book is actively combating this attitude. These characters represent the two ways one can approach this kind of total exile. Mentor is from the older generation, the ones who saw the fall of the mage kings and who almost definitely knew mages who died in the initial purge. He is jaded and irritable, and twice in the first twenty minutes says to Zia, “Life is so easy, is it not?” when she gets antsy about using her magic.
The book, however, is older. The book represents a time when having mage-kings and actively roaming mage-guardians worked, letting players know that this system isn’t inherently flawed. Mage-kings used to be the reason people could walk freely in the valley at all; under the Marquis, the goblins run totally wild, and all the roads in and out of everywhere are unsafe. The book is calling things by their “real names,” as he remembers them, and wants to know why the modern language has shellacked all this new jargon over the truth. (Side-note, I have literally no reason to believe this evil book is male, but anyway…)
So, the objectively evil spellbook is thus far the only Socratic character in the story (which is fine, as you don’t need more than one). The purpose of a Socratic character is to be the voice of dissent in a story-world with which an audience is unfamiliar. While the book’s questions are rarely overt, his casual observations and concerns about the state of the world as it is and the world as he once knew it imply a hoard of information players don’t have — like the old quarry having flooded itself out of practical use in “[his] time,” and the seal table thing in the mage town of Haven having once been in the castle — and this inspires the player to ask questions of their own — like whether Celestial magic is truly an evil thing. It’s easy to fall into the bad-fantasy-novel trap of having everything a character tells you about the history of the land be the complete and unadulterated, non-propagandized truth; the book is our anchor against this type of narrative complacency.
The book functions as Zia’s anchor as well; alone, she wouldn’t think to ask these questions. The people she meets who know she’s a mage — and who fear her because of it — believe that magic is dangerous, and to keep themselves safe, the Valley just can’t have any magic in it at all. Zia was raised by these people; she grew up believing the same thing. Now that Zia is in the thick of it, she has to look further into it; but they don’t, because they are satisfied with the answers they already have. Their terror of mages stems from physical insecurity and an unwillingness to trust people with inherently more power over the world than they’ll ever possess, even in theory. The fastest way to solve that problem at the time was to get rid of the offending power. That way, their ‘side’ (non-mages) would be the biggest fish in the ocean. There would be nothing left — in theory — capable of scaring them.
The turning point of Mages of Mystralia happens when the Marquis dies in the most suspicious fire ever. The Chancellor says, “A mage did it” and decides to find all the ones they let go the first time in order to kill them properly now. The first place to be attacked is Zia’s home village, Greyleaf.
This incident is the turning point not because it’s where the status quo gets paved over, but because public opinion begins to turn in Zia’s favor. The Marquis is dead, and the Chancellor — who was the voice of the Marquis and a man in whom the public had great trust — is becoming as dangerous as mages had ever been. Aetius had to be stopped not because of his Celestial magic, but because he was using it to burn villages to the ground; now the Chancellor is doing the exact same thing. The only difference is the Chancellor is using the army instead of magic.
The most eye-opening thing Zia learns, however, is that the fear of mages was not entirely organic, but orchestrated by a single person. The Chancellor, we discover, is a mage. His goal is to exact revenge on the mages of Haven who exiled him for trying to master magic he was not ready for — Celestial magic, just like Aetius. Does this mean, then, that mages are evil? If the last two people to burn down the Valley were mages, surely magic must be the problem. Yet it is not, precisely because Zia also a mage. If both the hero and the villain are mages, the only difference between them is who they are as people.
Mages of Mystralia is Zia’s journey — not only to love her new self, but in learning that, to quote The Blacklist of all things: “the line of good and evil runs through us all,” and the world is never as simple as we think. Mages aren’t inherently evil, and non-mages aren’t inherently good. We are presented with mages who are good and mages who are evil; we are shown people who fear the player, and people who do not. The Chancellor is a mage who hurts people; Zia, Mentor, and everyone in Haven are mages who save them. The world is full of evidence to something, but whatever that might be, Zia and the book have to find out what’s really true for themselves.
“You will not always find the answers you seek,” says the Enchanter in Haven, “but you will always grow stronger, seeking them.”