Several years back, I was on a backpacking trip with a guy whose whole family were huge fans of classic SF/Fantasy. One of the fantasy books he brought for the long car rides piqued my interest, but I've lost the name.

General things I remember:

  • It's part of a series
  • It's not very recent (certainly not in the last 20 years)

In particular, the logistics of the magic system intrigued me, and is the main reason for wanting to reread the first book and find the later ones.

Magic is granted by knowledge of words of power, of which there are a finite number in the world. Knowledge of multiple words of power is possible and grants access to various tiers of abilities:

  • One word grants somebody a knack for a particular skill. I don't recall the specifics, but I seem to remember that these were extreme enough to guide somebody's path through life without thoroughly defining it
  • Two words makes somebody an adept, who excels at the acquisition of new skills when intensively trained. In the book, one example described is that an adept who trained for a day with a master swordsman would be his equal by the end of the day
  • Three words makes somebody a sorcerer. I have very little knowledge of what this does, since there was only a brief encounter with one (if any). Knowledge of four or more words isn't brought up, AFAIK.
  • Finally, the power of a word is slightly diluted by the number of people who know it. People who know words of power may form agreements to share with each other, but these nearly always ended in one member killing the other(s), as one person could slightly increase their power by offing the other guy

The final detail I remember is that there is a set of individuals who share a space in the world. These people all know the same word of power, and therefore are all adepts (there is a musician, a stereotypical brute, and maybe a thief?), but only one of them exists in the world at a given time. I seem to remember that these people could switch out if they reached a consensus.

  • The "gaming" of the power reminds me of Piers Anthony, but I don't recall one of his books with this plot.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Aug 14 '18 at 18:14

Dave Duncan's A Man of His Word as recounted in the accepted answer to Magic is based on words of power, which series?.

Like all Dave Duncan's fantasies, Magic Casement has a charm and vibrant sense of humor that helps to compensate for its reliance on archetypes and narrative predictability. Indeed, Duncan revels in archetypes. It's as if he sees plucky princesses and good-hearted stableboys and evil sorceresses and imps and goblins to be fantasy's necessary condiments; lose them and it's like (to evoke yet another cliché) a hot dog minus the mustard. Duncan's novels are like those whopping great baseball stadium hot dogs, loaded with all the onions, chili, relish, mustard, and trans fats your poor flabby body can endure. You know full well it isn't health food going in, but dear lord, if it isn't yummy!

Now that I've stretched that analogy to its limit, on to the novel. Magic Casement begins Duncan's A Man of His Word tetralogy. It's all about a good-hearted stableboy and a plucky princess and how they must save a kingdom from assorted nefarious baddies. The novel's first half has Duncan in top form, enjoying the characters he's created and lovingly piling on layers of personality. The setting is the remote kingdom of Krasnegar, perched on a rocky spar on the northernmost coast of the continent of Pandemia. It's king, kindly Holindarn, is near death, and has no male issue. Women simply cannot inherit, so it's a matter of great interest to several warring nations in Pandemia just who Princess Inosolan marries, as whomever rules Krasnegar controls its valuable northern port. But Holindarn has given Inos leave to follow her heart, and marry whom she wants, and is not willing to force her into an arrangement.

There's another reason Krasnegar is important to its neighbors. Holindarn possesses a word of power. In Duncan's world, magic can only be done by those who possess such words, and Krasnegar's earliest king was one of the only men alive to possess three, making him an inordinately powerful mage. Upon his death he gave each of his three sons one word apiece, though no one is sure why. There are many with limited magical power (who are still pretty powerful in a world where most people have none) who naturally covet a second. To have theirs plus Holindarn's would be quite a coup.

Rap is a sad-sack stableboy in Holindarn's service who nevertheless has been dear friends with Inos since childhood. And yet when he displays a gift for farsight, the ability to see not only objects hidden and in the distance, but events a short time before they actually happen, some around him wonder if he has a word of power. He swears he doesn't, but that doesn't stop him from being dogged by fear and suspicion.

It's a series, so you may have read one of the later books in the series.

I chiefly found this one because I remembered it coming up before, I think in 3 words of power make you a powerful mage. 4 words of power make you G-D like, which I honestly think is the better answer despite being marked a Duplicate. I found it by searching for [story-identification] "words of power" on this site.

  • That's the one, thank you! Aug 14 '18 at 18:29

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