The system within Firestarter was two-fold. First, there were the experiment participants, namely Andy and his wife, Vicky. They, along with a handful of others, were involved in an experiment during college where they were given a psychic drug that awakened within them psychic abilities. Some were more prominent than others. Vicky had telekinesis, but it was very subtle and hardly used. Andy had the ability to “push” people into doing whatever he said. He couldn’t use it for long without incurring a migraine, and using it too much on the same person chanced the possibility of unsettling their minds, causing a ricochet effect that was dangerous if left untended.
Andy and Vicky met at the experiment and married not long after. They had a daughter, the only offspring of the participants, named Charlie. Due to the mutation in the parents caused by the drug, Charlie inherited an even stronger ability with far less limitations. She was also telekinetic, but whenever she used it, she tapped into an energy source that demanded release in the form of a fire. As the book progressed, she could also start fires without preceding them with telekinesis. Once she began releasing the fire energy, it became difficult for her to stop and caused exponential damage. Unlike her father, she had no physical ill side effects from this, since she was born with it and her body adapted to it automatically.
One of the things that made the magic system so interesting was the contrast between Andy and Charlie’s abilities (Vicky died before the book began). Near the beginning of the book, as Andy grows weak while using his power, Charlie wishes she could switch with him. She notes that his power hurts himself, but hers hurts others. Indeed, while it doesn’t take much for Andy to succumb to headaches, Charlie has no physical consequences from using her power, but the more she uses it the more she risks the lives of others.
Charlie’s lack of limitation is also significant. Some authors will tell you that limits are the most important part of the magic system, but here we have a character who is virtually limitless. Were she to release the fire power and let it continue on without attempting to stop it, it might never end. Because of that, she was raised from infancy to be wary of using her power. When circumstances force her to use it to harm others, she’s horrified and pledges never to use it again. In this way, the lack of limits creates an even more compelling obstacle than the presence of one. Her only real limitation is her personal morals. This is the very reason for the tension during the story, as others fear the potential of her power and plan to stop her from using it to possibly destroy the world (but only after studying her).
Given that the story is named for Charlie, and she is the main focus, I think Andy’s power might be underestimated by most. He may be unable to maintain his power for long, but he can cause massive damage by merely speaking to someone, much like Killgrave in Jessica Jones or Jesse in Preacher. At one point he told an opponent to “sleep,” and sent him into a coma for months, after which he fell back to sleep anytime someone said the word. As mentioned before, the ricochet effect was incredibly dangerous as well. On more than one instance, commanding someone triggered the effect and drove the person crazy.
All in all, despite only featuring two characters with powers (the rest of the participants are only mentioned in passing), I found this book to be a wonderful take on magic systems, especially in the modern world (well, in the 70s… but you know what I mean). The morals and mind games throughout the book, alongside the character journeys, were enhanced by the setup, resulting in a compelling and enjoyable story. Even if King isn’t your particular cup of tea, I’d recommend checking this one out.
Magic System Overview:
- Method of obtaining
- Outside means – experiment participants
- Born with it – Charlie
- Likelihood of obtaining
- Indifferent – experiment participants
- Inherited by all – Charlie and presumably any other descendants had they existed
- Method of use