Magic for Liars was a challenge to sit and write an articulate, reasonable response to—because it’s that good. Translating the burst of astonished, nigh-on-outraged delight I finished the book with to functional human language took some time. I thought maybe I’d just record a clip of me shaking the book with both hands at a camera in silence ... the novel works on two fronts simultaneously, and each is as good as the other. On the level of individual text, a book with a tale to tell, it’s got scalpel-edge precision in its prose, a compulsively engaging plot, and twisty, unpredictable characters that clash in unexpected ways. Then there’s the secondary level, the one that has me all sorts of bothered (in the positive sense): Magic for Liars is deliciously aware of genre conventions—and in constant, sly, manipulative conversation with them. The novel is a readers’ novel, the sort of text that teases and tugs the attention of the audience in contradictory directions reliant on their shared understanding of tropes ... The plot, too, is stunning. Magic for Liars has an excellent grasp on the structure of mysteries ... Magic for Liars is a perfect, spare, delectable novel that features a masterful narrative structure, terribly human characters occupying realistically magical settings, and more ... I can’t recommend it highly enough.
What would have happened to Petunia Dursley if she were left behind and decided to become a private investigator instead of a nosy homemaker? The answer is a painfully human protagonist, who struggles with alcohol and a simmering depression, as well as unresolved and lingering grief, barely articulated, from her mother’s death ... Gailey relies on magic school tropes with a light and sly touch ... Queer themes are woven very subtly and neatly into the story–it’s a thing that is so normal as not to need to be overtly commented on. More than anything else, though, Magic for Liars is a quietly emotional story. Readers will want to know whodunnit, but more than that, they want to know Ivy, and are invested in Ivy’s processing of her past with Tabitha, the way the sisters navigate jealousy, betrayal, estrangement, grief, and love.
Sarah Gailey's premise had me intrigued from the start, and though it took me a while to warm up to Ivy as a narrator, I found her worth the wait. Sure, she's bitter and thorny, but Ivy has the mordantly hilarious humor of a woman who lives by her wits, as well as a private investigator's talent for observation and for drawing people out ... I think Ivy succeeds as a protagonist because, like so many women, she's a talented person who feels like a failure because she isn't extraordinary ... I don't know whether Magic For Liars works as a crime novel; Ivy is believable as a sharp investigator, but the narrative may hand her a few too many gifts. I think it does work as an emotional story that contains magic: a tale of two sisters, each at her own turning point, heading unavoidably towards collision. The worldbuilding is solid and done with care. I do have a few reservations: The principal love interest is perhaps a little too wonderful a person, and the only specifically African American character on the staff—the formidable Mrs. Webb—is a source of scalpel-sharp insight and unexpected power, whose portrayal skates perilously close to magical stereotype.
Ultimately, though, Magic For Liars is a good read.
Sarah Gailey’s magic crime book is a mix of Blood Ties meets Veronica Mars with a bit of Harry Potter sprinkled in throughout the page. Be aware that it may sound obvious in which direction the story might go, but trust me, you will get it wrong a few times. Another similarity is that there is a chosen one who will be the most powerful mag of our time. This person is revealed pretty early on within the story and does turn out to be an important clue to the story. However, it does kind of feel misplaced with everything else going on. The most interesting part in the story is the fact that mags are capable of doing some really cool things, even curing people. However, this is only possible until a certain point when everything goes sideways. This is something that is usually not a topic in a magic story, or it is said that it just is not possible. But here, it is and this is what makes Magic for Liars special.
Imagining a Harry Potter novel written by Megan Abbott is a phenomenal setup for a book, and Gailey provides a decidedly more grounded version of the magic school experience ... Unfortunately, they never get the development needed to make them feel like anything more than moving pieces of the plot. While the story itself follows the beats of a noir perfectly, down to an ending that delivers only pain for everyone involved, it’s not quite twisty enough. I had the answer to the mystery figured out a full hundred pages before it was taking Ivy by surprise ... a lovely look at sibling rivalry, how misunderstandings can last for years, and the delicate and painful work required to admit fault and accept apologies ... Gailey still fails to imagine how mages fit into the world at large and what prospects await them besides the most obvious fields like magical healer, teacher, or law enforcement officer ... just a bit of extra information would have gone a long way toward making the setting feel better defined ... The book feels so close to being magical, but never finds a way to achieve its full power.
Ivy makes for a compelling narrator, even if some of the twists are too well telegraphed. No matter, really, because Gailey’s voice, which burns brightly in her American Hippo stories, carries the action well. It feels like this book could kick off a new series, which would be a welcome addition to the magic schools universe.
Gailey's debut is an energetic modern fantasy that plays rough with relationships and personal beliefs, from youth to adulthood. Ivy's emotional investigation will strike a chord in anyone who has ever felt like they don't belong. Highly recommended for all collections.
There’s something for almost all readers here: family drama, romance, high-school gossip, fantasy-world building. Above all, Gailey shows us that humans are humans, even when they are magic, and they are still flawed, damaged, and oh so interesting.
The worldbuilding is thin, but the tensions between the characters sweep readers past any questions that might result. A poignant and bittersweet family tragedy disguised as a mystery but with a magic all its own.