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Research Notebook 17

Fantasy. Around 10 pages. Published July 16, 2022.


I’m resurrecting this research notebook in the hope that I can stick with it this time. It’ll be useful.

My research question (or rather one of many, but this one has been top of mind for months): why is the magic so finicky? It’s unreliable, sometimes working and sometimes very much not. We don’t know why. (But perhaps will soon, if all goes well here!)

Hypothesis 1: Intonation matters more than we think. Get the tone or syllabic stress or some other vocalic quality just the little bit wrong and poof, no magic. [Note: To test this, we could run through a spell phrase dozens of times, changing intonation each time. I don’t feel confident that we could test every possible intonation — so many syllables, so hard to discretely separate different tones — but if this hypothesis holds, only one would work and the rest would fail.] [Note 2: Unless intonation matters but there’s still a little bit of wiggle room. If that’s the case, several intonations could work even if the intonation is what matters. That’s good news — it’s easier to cast spells than it could be — but will be harder to verify. One hopes the set of correct intonations would have some easily discernible common characteristic.]

Hypothesis 2: Magic only works on a grid and you must be standing precisely at a grid intersection for it to work. [Note: This is ridiculous. And provably false, since Abernathy cast multiple spells from the back of a galloping horse just last week.]

Interjection: To help come up with hypotheses, I want to move to higher ground for a moment and make a list of possible categories. Magic could work some of the time but not others because of:

  1. The way the spell is cast
  2. Properties of the caster at the time of the spell (physical pose, mental health, intentionality, focus/attention)
  3. Where the caster is (maybe not a grid, but something else having to do with geography or topography — elevation, cloud cover, magnetic field strength)
  4. When the caster is casting the spell (time of day, perhaps?)
  5. Why the spell is cast (though this is really the same as intentionality and probably doesn’t deserve to be split out)

Hypothesis 3: Magic only works when you hold yourself in a certain pose or poses. [Note: Seems unlikely. To test it, though, one could form a pose, cast a spell, change the pose ever so slightly, cast again, repeat.]

Hypothesis 4: Magic only works when you’re casting a spell for a compatible reason. [Note: May be very difficult to test. Examining anecdotal evidence may help here. Oh, how I wish this field were more than five years old so we could have some deep historical data to pull from!] [Note 2: I am of course grateful beyond words to be at the forefront of this new field. Pioneers!]

I don’t know. This seems an impossible task.


No real progress. I took some of the hypotheses and tried running tests for each. Results are in the big beige notebook, but it doesn’t matter because every test came out negative. No magic. Not a single event of interest happened, except me falling over several times while trying to balance on one foot.

I know this is how the process works and I need to not let myself get down about it and I furthermore need to be patient if I want to reap any harvest here, but still. It’s difficult.

Fortitude, Issy Makrannan! You’re a woman of intelligence and skill, and you’re not going to let a monster of a problem defeat you. Tackle it one bit at a time. If anyone can solve this riddle, it’s you.

That actually helped, a little.

So. I think what might be best at this point — and I’ve been avoiding it because half the professors here at Trimbridge have already done just this (not exaggerating) — is to catalog every successful spell casting that we’re aware of so far. Every detail. It will of course be far from complete (people holding things back, misremembering, etc.), but maybe something will present itself nonetheless.


Oikostis was kind enough to let me copy her extensive table of spell castings, to get me started. I’ve since interviewed everyone in it (except for Jocelyn Humb, who passed away last month) (of old age, nothing foul or magical) to confirm what was there and extract whatever additional detail I could. I’ve also checked with the other professors; two of them let me see their records, giving me another six incidents Oikostis didn’t have. I feel this is sufficiently thorough, even if it’s still not historically complete.

Tactics for approaching this mountain of information: read through everything and make a list of commonalities. I wish I also had a table of failures so I could compare the two. (I suppose there’s nothing stopping me from making one. If nothing presents itself with this table, then I’ll go ahead and do that.)

I’ve now read through half the table and the only commonalities are:

Second point is quite curious. Has nobody been able to cast spells at night? I thought surely, but so far, nothing past sunset. [Note: might this explain the failure of all my earlier tests? I teach a full load of classes during the day so by necessity all my experimentation has been in the late evening.]

More hypotheses: Magic derives its power from the sun. [I need to find time during the day to test across sunny, cloudy, and rainy conditions. Or get someone else to perform the tests while I’m teaching, but that’s less ideal. Or I can just do this on the weekend. I don’t work weekends as a rule (for my own sanity), but this might be worth the exception.]

What else could make magic work during the day and not at night? Maybe I’m thinking about it backwards. Maybe it’s not a question of the daytime enabling it — maybe something about the nighttime blocks casting and breaks it. Darkness? [Note: as part of those daytime tests, try some indoors in dark, enclosed closets. Cloud cover might not be dark enough to affect it.]

Another unnumbered hypothesis (I need to be more consistent about these): Magic works based on the number of people around. [Note: Too few people (such as at night), no critical mass, no magic. But at night people are around, they’re just asleep. Maybe it’s the number of people who are awake.] [Never mind. I just reviewed The Table and there are several cases where the caster was by themselves in a fairly remote location.]


I ran a series of tests throughout the day (minus two hours at brunch with Uncle Geir and Aunt Polippirain). Inside and out. Under the shade, under the sun. Dark closets, windowed rooms. The gamut. Not one was successful. The magic does not want to cooperate.


What I wrote last time has been worming around in my brain and I realized something which I’ve just now confirmed by going through The Table: as near as I can tell, the magic is only ever in one place at a time.


(Extra emphasis seems noteworthy here. This has the scent of a breakthrough.)

Magic only being in one place at a time leads me to what now seems an inexorable conclusion (but cart and horse): the magic didn’t cooperate during my tests because the magic wasn’t there with me. Because it was somewhere else. Because it’s a thing that can move around and can only be in one place at a time.

I find myself immediately thinking of it as a creature, a being, a wraith, but there’s no evidence yet of intelligence or sentience or anything like that. It could be just a floating tumbleweed, granting magical powers wherever it tumbles.

But. What if it’s intelligent?

Again, cart and horse. I first need to test and prove this initial hypothesis. How to do that — beyond collecting more accurate timestamped data for the table (though people are not going to be checking a clock while in the middle of casting a spell, so the data is always going to be woefully incomplete) — is beyond me.


Trying to think of other tacks. If it’s a creature of some intelligence — a level somewhere between an animal’s and a person’s…or beyond (!) — then it can presumably be communicated with in some way.

Come now, Issy. If it’s a being that spends its time floating around the country providing magic to humans, can it really be that intelligent? More likely it’s the tumbleweed equivalent. But benefactors do exist in the human world. The magic could also be an accidental byproduct of its actual business in the unseen realms, whatever that business is.

What we do know: it is invisible to us. Inaudible, too. No smell, no taste, no feel. Our only interaction with it (that we know of) is when casting spells.

So…perhaps spell casting is the way to communicate. If the magic is aware of the contents of the spell — if I cast a message onto a wall or written in a book, or maybe even spoken aloud — that could work. But there’s no reason to expect that this magical creature would speak my language (or any other human tongue).

Folly. This is all madness.


I spent the morning wandering around town muttering “here, magic, magic” under my breath like a lunatic.

Dear reader, the magic did not in fact scamper up to me and lick my face.

Utterly hopeless. I should research something else. This is never going to go anywhere.


I’ve been asking people to notify me whenever anyone does magic. Intrusive, and I doubt many will comply, but if I can get there while it’s still in the room, maybe…


Twice today I was notified and duly ran like a madwoman to the site of the casting. In both cases the magic left no discernible effect or imprint on the material world, beyond the effects of the casting I’d arrived too late for.

Carpentry. That’s what I’m thinking of taking up, since clearly I’m a failure at this professorship thing. (If you’re wondering how the teaching side of things is going: seven complaints this term alone. Too dry, too hard to follow along, not attractive enough (the perennial), too much homework, tests don’t match what was taught in class, etc. etc.)

Do I have any experience with carpentry? No. But I think I’d like it. A physical object as the output of my sweat and tears, something beautiful (or not!) that I can heft and feel and smell. What a change of pace that would be. There’s a community workspace downtown (I overheard one of the professors talking about it, can’t remember who), and my understanding is I can just show up with some lumber. (If only it were that simple, right?)

But if I’m ever to do it, I must begin, and I’ll never get experience unless I do begin, so off we go.

In the meantime: should I pursue this line of research any further? I don’t know. It feels dead-ended. During my last months here (which will inevitably turn into years, I know, because carpentry won’t be something I can pick up in a few nights), I should look into a line of research that’s more productive, so that I don’t get penalized. Something safe. More history of magic, perhaps. I bet there’s room to explore what was happening in Rotorno and Ghart in that first year. The dirigible fiasco was certainly not the only spell that was cast there.

I just had a thought. Ordinarily research here is held very close to the chest for obvious reasons, but since I’m already planning to switch both research lines and careers, maybe I should publish or distribute what I have, for the greater good. The Grand Table, my theories about magic only being in one place at a time and consequentially the likelihood that it’s a being of some kind, all of that.

The danger with this, though, is that my credibility will inevitably be destroyed. Issy’s folly. Can I bear the mockery and the shame? I must. Besides, it will help spur me on to dedicate myself more fully to carpentry. Motivation.


The cat is out of the sack. I typed up everything relevant (the table etc.) and made copies and distributed every last one to all the esteemed professors of Trimbridge.

I feel lightheaded. Probably from running hither and yon. Should have carried myself at a more dignified pace, one befitting a croaky old man. (Okay, they’re not all croaky and definitely not all old. I hope none of them sees this.)

Well then. Off to the library I go, to read up on Rotorno and Ghart and probably Meskel too. I don’t read any of the languages, which will probably hamper this project now that I think about it. Nevertheless, onward. Hindrances will crumble in the face of persistence, that’s what Dad always said. Yes, I am aware of the irony given my circumstances.


Things are happening.

First, Oikostis asked why on earth I published all my data and hypotheses. Gave away the store, she said. I explained the pivot (as I’m calling it these days). I don’t think she really understands that decision, but she can read Ghart fluently and knows a little Meskel, and (most relevantly) she is in fact interested in working jointly on the history. This is good. This is very good.

Second, I ran into Hurri-gha-Zeyk in the hallway. He has always intimidated me (all those awards, the man is a book-writing factory, and he’s so tall, and I’d never actually talked with him) but he turns out to be incredibly kind and real. Which was a relief. He thanked me profusely for my data and said that because of it, he’s on the verge of something, and that he’ll keep me in the loop. Exciting!

Third, I bought a block of wood.


Not half an hour ago Hurri-gha-Zeyk distributed a preprint monograph with his world-bending findings: he has been able to prove that the magic does come from an invisible creature, one that is only in one place at a time. He calls it an iss, in my honor, and loudly credits me on the title page.


I overheard a few other professors in the hall, grumbling that they had been just about to reach the same conclusion. I’ll admit this is all supremely satisfying.

I haven’t read through Hurri-gha-Zeyk’s methodology section yet so I don’t know the details of how he did it. Some kind of imaging device that casts rays, I believe, though I was skimming so I don’t know for sure.

Anyway, I’ll read it later, after I’m done sifting through the last four massive volumes of Loij’s Delineation of Gharthan History. (At least I don’t have to go through the other thirty-six.)


The history project is coming along nicely. Lots to do, and it all feels doable. A good change.

Hurri-gha-Zeyk wants to collaborate on further research into the iss. We could do amazing things together, he said. (In spite of how it sounds, I’m fairly certain he was not coming on to me.)

I don’t know. It’s promising — fame! glamorous research! — but I don’t know that I have a taste for it anymore. This historical stuff feels much more me.

As does the carpentry. I’ve been to the shop (the workshop) almost every evening this week, and I’m so, so close to finishing my first rocking chair. An ambitious first project, I know, but it’s something I’ve wanted at home and there are plenty of very kind and supportive people at the shop to help me.

I’m learning so much there — how to use at least a dozen different tools, which techniques have which advantages and disadvantages, the best types of wood for different types of furniture. I’ve also helped some of the others in the shop a few times. Nothing big, just bracing or fetching tools, but it feels good. I look forward to working with these people.

Not only that, but the work itself is soothing in a way that research and teaching never were. It doesn’t stress me out, even when things go wrong. (Okay, maybe just a little bit. But it’s nothing like the stress I feel when teaching.)

And most importantly, the thought of woodworking being a large part of my future makes my heart jump up and down with glee.

I think that’s a good sign.