Reviewed by Reina Bambao
MAGIC FOR LIARS
By Sarah Gailey
336 pages. Tor Books.
Magic for Liars is a lie of a title, really.
It’s only half about liars and even less about magic, and wholly about two estranged sisters, Ivy and Tabitha Gamble. Tabitha is magic and Ivy is not, and after years of no contact, Ivy is hired to investigate a murder at Osthorne Academy, a school for young mages where Tabitha is a teacher. Think Harry Potter’s Lily Potter and Petunia Dursley – where Lily and Tabitha are both brilliant witches of their age and Petunia and Ivy are undeniably Muggle and even more undeniably bereft of the sister who had once been their closest friend.
The equally pressing questions of whodunnit and will-they-or-won’t-they-be-sisters-again will keep you turning the pages of Sarah Gailey’s debut novel, Magic for Liars!
Not so much about magic
Ivy is baffled to discover that magic school is just like regular high school – no one lives in dungeons or castle turrets, graffiti is more “So-and-so is a Lewd Four-Letter Word” and less “Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever”, et cetera. Magic is also surprisingly technical. There are theoretical classes and labs and laws of the known universe that can’t be crossed. Which makes sense; after all, science and magic were the same thing once upon a time, before we started calling it medicine or physics.
What this means for the reader is that the story doesn’t focus on magic itself. As a long-time fantasy reader, Gailey’s worldbuilding falls quite short for me. It feels like Gailey wanted to tell a story that required a magical element, so she established the existence of magic…then stopped there. Magic for Liars lacks the wonder a story about magic should inspire; apart from where magic directly impacts the plot, it’s mostly treated as part of the scenery.
Really more about liars
Realistically, though, I doubt you picked up this book expecting Patrick Rothfuss or J.K. Rowling! There’s still much to be invested in here, particularly the lingering question of who – if anyone – is the murderer. Osthorne Academy offers up a host of suspects: a pervy English professor, a grumpy school nurse, a sullen seventeen-year-old convinced he’s destined to become the world’s “most powerful mage”, and his sister who always seems to get her way.
Ivy navigates this lineup with expertise. She picks apart their body language, muses on their motivations, and points out where they bluff and fumble as she baits and hooks them in return. She dissects human behaviour like the professional she was hired to be, and these scenes are by far the most entertaining part of Magic for Liars. It will inevitably make you wonder – what would an observant PI think of me? How would I hide my feelings if I’m under a similar microscope? How often am I lying to myself?
The other half of this equation is Ivy as the deceiver. She breaks down how she molds herself into the roles that will suit her ends – the lonely sister reaching out to her estranged twin, the mysterious detective winning the confidence of awestruck high school students, the visitor charming the pants off the male teachers (not literally). A tweak of her expression here, a deliberate choice of words there – perhaps one reason Ivy’s so good at unraveling others’ lies is because she’s woven quite a few herself.
Mostly about sisters
At its core, Magic for Liars is really about Ivy and Tabitha.
You see, Ivy doesn’t really want to be magic. What she wants is to belong. And once upon a time, Ivy had known she belonged with her twin, her best friend – but Tabitha turning out to be magic meant that Tabitha’s place was in a world where she has nothing in common with Ivy. While Ivy is in Osthorne, she imagines constantly what it would be like to belong there, not because she wants to be magic but because she longs to be someone who could relate to Tabitha again.
And Tabitha, grieved over the death of her colleague and as seemingly lonely as Ivy is, appears to want the same thing. The slow crawl of the sisters to meet each other in the middle is more tense than the manhunt for a murderer in a high school. A blurb on the inside cover says of the sisters’ relationship: “…it broke my heart,” and that part was no lie.
Magic for Liars might not be for you if you’re looking for a solid addition to either the fantasy or mystery genres. But if you’re not here to nitpick, it’s an engrossing summer read that’ll have you flying to the end to find out whodunnit.
(And whether you can fool a PI as well as you often fool yourself.)
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey will soon be available at Fully Booked. Email us to reserve your copy in advance.
Reina is a professional content writer for lifestyle, health, and most things geek. When not at work, she reads everything from YA dystopia, to history books, to tarot cards. Support her lifelong love affair with words over at reinabambao.com!
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]