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My memory of this story, possibly a short story rather than a full book, is extremely vague but the situation made an impression on me:

There was a magic user of some kind who I'll call a wizard. The wizard is hired to solve some kind of problem. No clear memory of what, exactly, the problem was, but the assumption by the customer was that the wizard would use magic to achieve some difficult goal.

An apprentice or confidant of the wizard follows him around while the wizard performs the task he was hired for. This person is surprised to see that the wizard solves the problem without using any magic.

Instead, more mundane people skills and/or research skills are used by the wizard to achieve the paid goal. The wizard then reports back to the customer that the problem has been solved and the wizard lets them assume that some powerful spell was cast for the money they paid.

I believe the wizard explains his avoidance of magic to the apprentice with a minimalist philosophy: it's wise to not put more effort into a solution than the solution truly requires.

I'll apologize for not being able to remember any more specifics about this story, but, despite the vagueness of this memory, it's quite a strong memory. It's been nagging me for years to find and reread.

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  • Hi, welcome to SciFi.SE! Do you remember when you read this perhaps? If it is a short-story, do you think it would be part of an anthology magazine, something you read online, part of a book of short-stories or something else?
    – fez
    Dec 19, 2023 at 21:25
  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. Approximately when did you read this? Do you recall the cover art? The names of any characters, or of any places visited? Also, was this definitely a fantasy story, or simply a contemporary(ish) story where someone was pretending to be a wizard but no actual magic existed?
    – DavidW
    Dec 19, 2023 at 21:26
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    Granny Weatherwax from Discworld was my immediate thought but she's a witch
    – Shawn
    Dec 19, 2023 at 23:49
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    @Shawn and Granny would never ask for money. That aside the apprentice/confidant role and avoiding magic that is expected does sound like the Granny/Eskarina relationship at the start of Equal Rites.
    – Jontia
    Dec 20, 2023 at 0:42
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    @Jontia - Granny would expect a small consideration like some old clothes or some food, but she'd never stoop to asking.
    – Valorum
    Dec 20, 2023 at 8:57

2 Answers 2

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I think there have been a few stories like this, but one that springs to mind is Fair-Weather Fiend by John Morressy. I read it in The Mammoth Book of Awesome Comic Fantasy edited by Mike Ashley.

The wizard is Kedrigern and he is contacted in secret by Prince Middry because his father King Tarpash has lost his wits.

After restoring the kings wits Kedrigern discusses the case with his assistant who is named only as Princess:

They reclined on the grass in silence for a time, until Kedrigern propped himself on his elbows, gazed up at the sky, and, apropos of nothing, observed, “The best part is that I solved the problem without using magic.”

In an instant, Princess, too, was sitting up. “What about the reversing spell on the crystal?”

“That was an afterthought. The important things were achieved by sheer intelligence and reasoning,” he said, tapping his forehead meaningfully.

“Isn’t magic the reason people summon a wizard? Isn’t it what they pay for?”

Irritably, Kedrigern said, “They pay me for what I know, not what I do. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a wizard.”

“And wizards do magic,” Princess said, as if that settled everything.

“When they must,” Kedrigern added.

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  • Could be it. I've ordered a used back issue of F&SF magazine containing this story. I don't recognize the cover art but F&SF is the only publication on the list that I think I would have read somewhere. Dec 20, 2023 at 21:29
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A possible match for this question is Terry Pratchett's Equal Rites. Granny Weatherwax is the local Witch, she resolved problems for the villagers mainly by the use of 'headology' which is actually thinking about an solving problems practically, but with a healthy dose of misdirection to make the recipient feel magic has been involved. Eskerina or Esk is a local girl who through a series of assumptions ends up as the recipient of a Wizard's staff and an inclination towards the flashy kind of magic usually practiced by Wizards.

The opening third of the book deals with the arrival of the staff, Esk becoming interested in magic and apprenticing to Granny where she is disappointed by the lack of 'real' magic going on.

Granny is a local Witch in the setting, indeed she would say she is The local Witch with the capital letters. She doesn't take money in payment, but rather the local community looks after her and she looks after them without anything so crass as direct trade or payment taking place.

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