The book focuses on the adventures of its main character and hero, Alodar, in the fictional land of Procolon. Alodar's self-imposed quest for much of the book is to distinguish himself sufficiently to wed the queen, Vendora.
The book is divided into six parts, each of the first five of which corresponds to a discipline of magic learned by Alodar in that portion of the narrative. The final part is entitled "The Archimage" and corresponds to Alodar's mastery of all other forms of magic.
In the first three parts, Alodar learns enough of a particular type of magic to make a notable achievement, but the antagonist of that part usurps Alodar's credit and becomes a recognized suitor to the queen. Alodar is then left with an artifact of some type that allows him to begin learning a new discipline of magic. The first part also introduces Aeriel, a female character important in the second half of the book.
The fifth part of the book reveals that Alodar's journey was planned by the ancient wizards, who predicted the now-imminent demonic invasion.
In the sixth and final part, Alodar uses his knowledge of all five magical disciplines in combination to defeat the leader of the demon army. However, Alodar spurns both marriage to the queen and an offer by his previous antagonists to support a coup placing Alodar on the throne; instead, he chooses to marry Aeriel and continue his apprenticeship.
The Art of Thaumaturgy consisted of applying the Principles to create a transitory effect. Thaumaturgy produces no lasting magical effects, but can be quite powerful, nonetheless.
The Principle of Sympathy means that to create an effect, we must look for things in nature that resemble or produce that effect and use them. A feather can lessen weight, a bit of honey can sweeten, a splinter of iron can give strength, a bit of lodestone can produce guidance, etc. Most normal materials possess one or more characteristics that can be useful, and the more strongly they possess the characteristic, the more useful the material is in Thaumaturgy.
The Principle of Contagion states that if something is once part of or associated with another thing, it remains indelibly connected to it and can be used to influence that other. Naturally, an actual piece of the target is the best, but there are various degrees of sympathy, ranging from a part of the same item, to a part of the same construct, to a long-associated item, down to something that has been in the presence of the target once. Each will work, which is one of the things that make Thaumaturgy the most general of the Arts. However, the energy required to link the target with the spell is greatly modified by the sympathetic connection available. If you wish to kill a man, for example, you will need much less energy if you have a piece of his hair. If you have only a picture of him, you may need several orders of magnitude more energy to kill him, and if you know only his name, several more. The very simplest thaumaturgical effect, involving the Principle of Sympathy alone, is to move a larger object by moving a small piece of it. This can be a parlor trick, if done with floating balls or scarves, or it can be an act of violent war, if done with a multi-tonne boulder. The difference between the two spells lies only in the energy invested.
The energy for Thaumaturgy comes from the natural world. Most practitioners use fire, as it is commonly available and easy to obtain, but other forms of heat, lightning, lava, etc can be used, depending on the amount required. Simple spells can even be performed using the heat from the caster’s own body, though it is not unknown for young Thaumaturges to kill themselves by overdoing this process.
This need for energy makes Thaumaturgy simultaneously the most powerful and the least powerful Art, and both the most and least complicated to use. A Sorcerer, for example, is limited in his power by how much of his own life force he wishes to expend in a spell, but a Thaumaturge may simply build a bigger fire – quite an advantage! But without a prepared source of energy, the Thaumaturge is limited to what he can do with his body heat, and dare try only the very simplest of cantrips. Similarly, an Alchemist can simply drink a potion to gain an effect, but a Thaumaturge may need to take an hour to prepare a roaring fire to gain enough energy – or may take no time at all, if he has an existing forest fire to work with!
Given the simplicity of the basic principles of Thaumaturgy, why is it not used by everyone? The answer is two-fold. First, there is a basic magical talent necessary. Few possess it, and fewer are trained to use it or channel the forces involved. The second qualification is knowledge of the chants and gestures needed to forge the spell link. Some say these are only a crutch to help the Thaumaturge concentrate while others claim they have intrinsic value, but they are necessary nonetheless. Naturally they (along with the practical knowledge of which materials work best for which properties) are passed from mentors to students and guarded jealously.
In Secret of the Sixth Magic, one of the Principles of Thaumaturgy (most likely the Principle of Contagion, given the substitute's associated aphorism more closely resembles that Principle linguistically) is shown to be replaceable (via Metamagic) by another (unnamed) Principle, with the associated aphorism, 'Same shape, same function.'.
The Art of Alchemy consists of combining the signatures of available materials to produce a finished product that creates the desired effects. Products of Alchemy tend to be potions, powders, or other transient items. They retain their potency for a relatively short time (typically weeks or months), and cannot produce lasting magical effects, but within those restrictions they can be powerful indeed. Potions to produce invisibility or change the shape and abilities of the drinker can be created, along with others to alter their mind or hearts. Acids can be created to destroy all matter, or to aid in hardening of metals. Powders can transport the user vast distances or blast with fire or lighting. Ointments can protect the user from any danger, at least for a while.
The basic alchemical operation is the creation of a potion. This requires a recipe, unless the user is of sufficient skill to create a recipe on his own – few Alchemists have the requisite skill. Recipes are recorded in the creator’s notebook and jealously guarded, often trapped and warded, but sometimes traded for others of similar worth.
Each recipe consists of a series of steps, with each step consisting of an ingredient to be added to the mixture and an incantation to be performed. The ingredients range from simple (coal dust, ground glass) to the sublime (powder diamond, organs from exotic beasts). The incantations are taken from a secret magical language, and can be used only by those with magical talent. The more powerful the result of the recipe, the more steps and ingredients needed to produce it. Each step has a chance of failure based on the power of the effect or signature added, the materials used, and the other materials in the recipe. If a given step fails, the entire recipe fails and must be restarted. If a recipe has more than a few steps, even a low failure chance will therefore result in a fairly high overall failure rate. In addition, there are often many alternative sources of a given effect, so making a high-yield recipe is a very complicated matter, especially as the number of steps rises.
Lastly, the results of Alchemy are often needed as ingredients for still-more powerful alchemical formulae, so you can see that successful Alchemy is a large-scale process, with production lines producing recipes involving dozens of steps with many workers and alchemists. Most of the preparatory work is done by labor (often slave labor), with the magic done by alchemists (sometimes slaves as well), and an alchemical formula that produces the desired result 6 times out of 10 is considered very good. This makes Alchemy a very capital-intensive craft, with a large investment needed to ensure results.
In Secret of the Sixth Magic, the Doctrine of Signatures is shown to be replaceable (via Metamagic) by another (unnamed) Doctrine, with the associated aphorism, 'The base drives away the good.'.
The Art of Magic is the art of perfect ritual. Though the flawless performance of often insanely complicated ritual, magical artifacts can be created that will, if not otherwise destroyed, last literally forever.
Each magical ritual consists of a number of steps, each of which must be performed correctly, with a very small margin of error, for the ritual to succeed. A step in a magical ritual can be simple “ring a 3-inch gong made of brass hanging from a silver chain, using an iron hammer”, or complicated “Douse the nearly-completed sword in the blood of a virgin born on the night of the rising of the Great Comet, and raised for twenty-nine years on a diet of millet and honey, who is wearing an ermine robe trimmed by …. Etc.”. The more powerful the effect added to the spell by a given step, the more complicated, time-consuming, and expensive the step tends to be. Many steps involve more than one person, and might require precious metals, troupes of dancers, the position of the stars, and any number of esoteric conditions.
Each part of the ritual also requires an incantation by one or more trained magicians, perfectly pronounced or sung, in perfect timing and pitch. Needless to say, Magic is a performing art at its base, and few have both the magical talent and the ability to master the precision and art necessary to advance in the craft.
Due to the strictures of the craft, Magicians tend to cluster into Orders, with large colonies of non-magical craftsmen devoted to supporting their endeavors. With the huge outlay in time, money, and effort that can go into the creation of a single magical item, such Mage Orders support their expensive activities by selling their created items, reserving only a portion of them for their own use. The items sold are incredibly expensive by normal standards, but since they last forever they are purchased nonetheless.
Magicians also tend to be good customers of the Alchemists, as alchemical potions are common ingredients in magical rituals. In turn, Alchemists tend to purchase magical items that will reduce the arduous nature of the tasks required by their profession.
In Secret of the Sixth Magic, the Maxim of Persistence is shown to be replaceable (via Metamagic) by the Maxim of Perseverance ('Repetition unto success.') and the Maxim of Perturbations (no associated aphorism given).
Sorcery is the control of one mind by another. It ranges from glamours and illusions to control and destruction, and is capable of producing effects that last as long as the mind of the victim exists.
In order to cast a sorcerous spell, the Sorcerer must make eye contact with his victim and speak the necessary enchantment. Eye contact is absolutely necessary, making the gaze of the sorcerer shunned by all sane individuals. The sorcerer then focuses his talent and pronounces the spell three times, and the magic is made.
The length of the spell involved depends on the power of the desired effect, and can range from a few words to a lengthy speech. The Sorcerer must speak it correctly three times, and then spend a portion of his own life force to power the spell. This means that any given Sorcerer can perform only a very limited number of spells in his lifetime, and that Sorcerers are very reluctant to use their craft. Indeed, older Sorcerers tend to look at their profession as a curse of sorts.
In Secret of the Sixth Magic, the Rule of Three is shown to be replaceable (via Metamagic) by the Rule of the Threshold ('Fleeting in sight, fixed in mind.').
The Art of Wizardry is a simple one, based on the summoning and control of demons. Demons are beings from another reality (not necessarily evil) who possess immense power when they are on our plane of existence. There are no complicated rituals, incantations, or formulae to memorize, but nevertheless Wizardry is the least practiced of the Five Magics, due to the dangers associated with it.
The Law of Ubiquity tells us that Flame permeates all. That is, that we can summon demons through fire. Small imps with minor abilities can sometimes spontaneously manifest through normal fires. Anything more powerful requires the active concentration and will of a Wizard. In addition, the more powerful the demon, the more exotic the fire necessary to provide it with a path to this world. Demons of slight power can be summoned through fires of wood or coal, with more advanced demons requiring exotic woods or liquids, or even stone or metals to be used as fuel for their fires. The burning of these normally inflammable materials is accomplished through an effort of will on the part of the Wizard.
The Law of Dichotomy says that the Wizard, having once summoned a demon, must either control it with his mind and will, or be controlled by it. There is no third path – one or the other must be controlled. Once control is established, the one controlled is bound for a length of time or for a task. The length of time can be long, but is inversely proportional to the power of the demon. Imps may be bound for years or decades. Greater demons and demonic princes may only be bound for single task, but are able to perform astounding magical feats as a single task.
Metamagic is the art of manipulating the laws that govern magic itself, that is, the seven rules listed above under the other schools. It is of principle focus of Secret of the Sixth Magic, wherein it is discovered/formulated (which may explain why no associated aphorisms are given, due to its newness). Wielding Metamagic involves suspending the current rules, replacing them with new rules, and reinstating the rules - the greater the skill of the Metamagician, the greater the difference between the old rule and the new one may be.
The Postulate of Invariance states that there can only be seven rules governing magic; the Axiom of Least Contradiction states that the seven rules that are in effect are those that best match the (non-magical) effects occurring during periods when the rules are suspended; the Verity of Exclusion states that those who are capable of wielding Metamagic are inherently incapable of wielding any other magic and vice versa.
The song 'Five Magics' by Megadeth was inspired by this book.