Sarah Gailey Presents a World of Magic
The idea of magic has largely gone from widely-accepted fact to pure fiction over the course of humanity’s history. Whereas before it may have been viewed as an integral part of daily life, today the majority of us consider it to be nothing but make-belief. Nevertheless, we have hardly stopped dreaming about magic, and the innumerable possibilities it would gift us with in some alternate timeline where it was indeed possible.
Many authors have shared their personal depictions of magical worlds, in and recent years I have the impression a tendency has arisen to make it more grounded, down-to-Earth, and essentially mixed with reality. Today we’re going to look at a book very much part of this thematic movement, Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars.
The story begins by presenting us with Ivy Gamble, a private investigator who makes ends meet by spying on cheaters for their spouses. She is estranged from her twin sister, Tabitha, for one small reason: contrary to Ivy, Tabitha was born magical, ending up working at an academy for mages. Perhaps fortunately, their lives are about to meet on a collision course as a gruesome murder takes place at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages where Tabitha teaches.
Resolved to attract the least amount of attention to themselves, the academy employs the services of Ivy to track down the murderer and hopefully preserve everyone’s reputation. Reluctantly enough, Ivy agrees to enter a world of magic she was rejected from before her life ever really began, even if it means she has to confront her sister once more.
Between magical high-schoolers, teachers with their own agendas, general evil-doers and the murderer himself, Ivy has her work cut out for her, forced to navigate an alien world for what will ultimately be yet another paycheck.
Alone Among the Mages
I will say from the very start I was intrigued by the premise on a surface level: putting a detective without magical powers to work in a magical environment. This alone presented a large amount of potential in my mind for curious explorations and interactions… and I am quite glad to say they were met, if not exceeded in Magic for Liars.
Ivy Gamble is an all-around charming and likeable protagonist I would definitely like to see more of, especially her increasingly-jaded attitude towards the extraordinary. Because she is, like us, an outsider of this world, it becomes fairly easy to enter her shoes and relate to the ways in which she experiences the world.
Her attempts, sometimes futile, at trying to find her way through a largely alien world are often either endearing or comical, often revealing something more about the setting along the way. There is definitely a lot of room left for character development, and I hope to see it tackled in future novels.
With this being said, it doesn’t mean the story goes easy on the development aspect. Most notably, Ivy’s relationship with Tabitha slowly grows and changes throughout the story, affecting both sisters and shaping their outlooks on life. I was quite pleased to see how organically the (arguably) most important relationship was developed over the course of the entire story, never deviating from the believable and feeling as genuine as a conflicted relation between two siblings can.
There are additional elements at play as well in regards to character development, such as the budding romance with another teacher, Rahul, and Ivy’s decision to keep her lack of magic under wraps. All together, these elements contribute to a complex and layered presentation of our protagonist.
Murder: The Foremost Concern
While Gailey does indeed take great care in creating a heavily detailed magical world with engaging characters (in which she succeeds), I was quite pleased to see she managed to keep the murder investigation at the forefront of this novel’s priorities. Being a pretty big murder mystery fan, I can definitely say this is one of the better investigations I’ve read recently, especially in a fantasy novel.
Despite the magical context, the approach feels very realistic and the unpredictable twists are far and few in-between. It’s one of those novels where you are trying to find the answer to the puzzle yourself as the plot moves forward, and in my opinion it is possible to find the correct culprit with more than pure luck. The events are always moving forward in this regard, with small clues dragging us along from one locale to the next, seldom giving us time to get bored with a lack of action.
Even if the underlying family drama between Ivy and Tabitha might be the most obvious theme in Magic for Liars, I felt the mystery disguised it will enough to allow me, the reader, to focus on the aspect I found more interesting.
With this being said, I don’t feel the murder mystery is groundbreaking by any means, nor does it venture into new unexplored territories. As a matter of fact, I believe it would have been an average investigation, if not for the reasons mentioned in the previous section: the depth of the characters.
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Whenever we think of a suspect or how they might be involved in the grand scheme of things, we aren’t just thinking of numbers, but of actual people we have become acquainted with. It feels as if there is a true weight to our judgements and accusations, and in my opinion it is one of the most important elements which makes Magic for Liars worth reading.
The Final Verdict
Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars is an excellent murder mystery and family drama, full of creative beauty and tragedy alike. The depth with which the characters are depicted truly elevates this book above its peers, and makes me very hopeful the author will continue to explore this genre in the future.
If you enjoy private investigators, supernatural mysteries and a down-to-Earth depiction of magic, then I highly suggest you give this book a chance.
Sarah Gailey is an American author of both fiction and non-fiction books who had the distinction of being a finalist for the Hugo and Campbell awards.
Her more recent works include Magic for Liars and American Hippo, with her most renowned book arguably being River of Teeth, published in 2017.