Here at Book Riot, this post: BOOKS DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN THEMSELVES TO YOU
I was curious, and ready to be snarky, but actually I agree completely with the point the author of this post is making:
The Chosen and the Beautiful is [a retelling of The Great Gatsby] set in our world, but with the addition of magic (and demons). The magical elements are woven through the story, but they’re not the focus. It’s much more about the characters and plot of the original story with a new perspective. One of the things I enjoyed about the story was the mysterious fantastical elements. … I take issue with readers saying that not explaining the magic system in a book like this is a flaw or weakness of the storytelling. … Magical realist and fabulist stories do this particularly well: the fantastical elements are used to establish mood or to have metaphorical resonance.
As I said, I agree.
One interesting tidbit I’ve gleaned over time from reading reviews is that some readers do want everything explained, with the rules of magic laid out and an appendix describing the history of the world. In other words, they literally do want infodumping, where the author pauses to explain things and then goes on with the plot.
This is fine, I guess, although I don’t really understand it. But the place it’s least fine is in magic, because there are fundamentally two kinds of magic:
a) Scientific magic, with rules that are clearly defined, and
b) Fairy-tale magic, with rules that are sometimes understood, but definitely not defined.
That is, in Patricia McKillip’s Song for the Basilisk, everyone knows that if you go to the magical land to get, for example, a dragon-bone pipe, then the rules are very different. Time and space are strange, and the people you meet may not be what they seem, and so on.
We all know that in fairy tales, if an animal stops you in the woods and asks for help, you should probably help it. But we also know this could be dangerous. We don’t need these rules spelled out; reading fairy tales as children makes these sorts of rules clear.
Also, the author of the Book Riot post is right again: unexplained magical elements that intrude into the “real world” are intrinsic to magical realism, and those elements give magical realism a lot of its charm.
This post tackles this subject from a couple different directions. It’s worth a look if you’ve got a minute.