A murder mystery in a boarding school for magic children featuring a non-magic, resentful, hard-boiled Private Detective.
Ivy and Tabitha Gamble are twin sisters who are super close until the day one of them—Tabitha—learns she is a magically gifted child who has a place at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages. Ivy is the one left behind, the one that has been denied anything magical, a whole new world outside her grasp. She is also the one who had to deal with their mother’s fatal illness and the difficult, grieving home life afterward.
Now grown-up and living so close and yet so apart from Tabitha, Ivy is a self-employed, moderately successful PI working minor cases until the gruesome murder of a teacher happens within the academy and she is called to investigate. It’s perhaps a bit more than she can chew: what with the kids entangled in their own dramas (one of them is 100% sure he is the subject of a prophecy that foretells the rise of the Most Powerful Mage Ever), this being her first actual murder case, and the fact that her sister is one of the teachers in the school (perhaps even one of the suspects?).
At times subverting tropes (the one about the Prophecy was my fave), at times simply embracing them while gender-flipping (I love how Ivy is a typical hard-boiled PI who drinks a lot and Makes a Lot of Mistakes. Including having a thing for a Hot Bi Professor), there is a lot of fun to be had with Magic for Liars, yes.
But this novel also has a powerful emotional core. Ivy is embroiled in a lot of self-doubt and resentment about being left behind due to arbitrariness. Even though she denies she ever wanted to be magical, it’s clear she is lying at least to some extent. Reading how Ivy chooses to engage with the mages in the Academy and how she often looks at reality through the lense of missed opportunities or seeing her trying to reconnect with her sister is truly heart-breaking. Meanwhile, this novel takes place in a school, so the kids and the teachers are also dealing with a lot of problems from abortions to heart-breaks, from bullying to grieving.
It’s incredible that the novel manages to feature these things without sugar coating them but also without dwelling in its own tragedies or losing a focus on hope.
I’d say Magic for Liars is the hybrid baby of three pieces: it’s like The Magicians by Lev Grossman, but without the annoying, self-entitled characters. Like The Secret Place by Tana French but with even more overt magic. Or like Harry Potter, but with actual on-page queer professors and from the perspective of a muggle. If you like any of these things plus Sarah Gailey’s own sharp writing, you are in for a magical treat.
A highlight of my reading year so far.
In Booksmugglerish, 8 enthusiastic nods out of 10.