Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

I would like to thank Jaime-Lee Nardone and Tor for a copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Tor

Published – Out Now

Price - £19.99 hardcover £9.49 Kindle eBook

Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magic. She is perfectly happy with her life – she has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It’s a great life and she doesn’t wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha. But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she should have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.

We all have roads we wish we perhaps may have taken sometimes. If I’d decided to do x, then I would now be doing y. We rarely get the chance to sample what that life would have been like.  We will have moved on and be different people but if a door did open up and allow you step into it (even if not a permanent one) would you take it? What harm could it do? This is just one of the ideas posed in Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars which I found a powerful, thoughtful and emotional ride into someone’s dreams and own deceptions.

In the world of Ivy Gamble Magic is REAL. The ability to manipulate matter and energy can present itself in children who when identified are taken to various magic schools to learn how to use their powers. Ivy’s twin sister followed this route and at that point the sister’s lives went very differently. Tabitha left home for a high-class school; Ivy stayed in her local school; Tabitha learnt to manage her appearance so that the two started to look very different; then their mother died, and their father was emotionally devastated so the drifting apart got worse.  Tabitha became an acknowledged professor while Ivy just about squeaked through graduating and as the FBI was no longer an option turned her attention to be a private investigator.  The twins now only really pose together at Christmas for a picture to please their father; but they don’t really talk any more. Then there is a horrific murder at Tabitha’s school; the school nurse was found in the library sliced into two pieces – the authorities’ have just classed this as a tragic spell gone horribly wrong that turned on the user.  But the sceptical headmistress knowing there is a detective out there with some understanding of magic hires Ivy to try and find out what really happened.

For a relatively short novel this story packs a whole amount of actual and also intriguingly emotional world building which I found really impressive. On the actual side it’s the concept of magic being real and how that changes our world.  Here magical schools are not Hogwarts (and the teachers all know about those books). In many ways it’s a standard upper-class high school with cliques; rivalries, romances and sleazy and noble teachers. But the lessons contain spells; messages are sent through space and insulting graffiti can sometimes never be removed.  The schoolrooms we may all recognise but very different in how people go about it. The impression I got was that to have magic meant you were separate and possibly even viewed as being above the non-magical – elites always behave like elites.

Ivy is more on the working-class side; slobby and hard-drinking prone to swearing and acting on impulse.  But here as she is merely going to be known as Tabitha’s sister and surely all Gambles are magical? Ivy decides it would be best not to dissuade students and teachers of this assumptions, so she throws herself into the world of magic she never got a chance to try herself. It offers respect; a chance to repair her sibling relationship and possibly even find some romance. While the magical world is fun the crux of my enjoyment in this novel was Ivy’s behaviour. Ivy tells herself this is all about the case, but we also see as this book is told in class private eye first person that Ivy actually wants this life. Tabitha got to escape seeing her mother die of cancer and her dad fall apart – here she can be better than the slightly dysfunctional detective she feels she has become.   She can step into a world of power and riches. This self-deception is fascinating – the whole novel has a theme of imposter syndrome of someone being in a place they absolutely are there for the right reasons (Ivy is a good detective) but feels she needs to prove herself more – be it dressing more expensively; talking about the science of spells or the wider magical world. The reader cannot think this lie is not just about the case but Ivy trying to fix her own life. Ivy is an unreliable narrator in the case of that we see her lying to herself most of all; which I found fascinating as it played out and we worry what happens to her when reality finally steps in.

I found the rest of the cast that Ivy plays with interesting to varying extents. After Ivy unsurprisingly the equally complex character is Tabitha who appears regularly to guide/annoy her sister. Again, we see someone who presents one side of them to the world but every now and then we see her own inner monologue play out. I think Gailey really captures a less than healthy sibling relationship where the ability for each other to say something wrong sets them further apart but sometimes you always want to talk to the person who knows you best. Their relationship felt true. There is an interesting sibling count point to this in the high school, as we meet Dylan – the typical brooding teenager everyone knows who lives under the weight o fa family prophecy that in his generation there is a chosen one and therefore he is likely to change the world. While his once sweet sister Alexandria is now a true Queen Bee turning on Mean Girl with the perfect skin; hair and an attitude of disdain alongside her coterie of teenagers ready to follow her lead.  Both siblings rarely want to acknowledge the other’s existence. We all have seen these types of relationships and I felt Gailey got that interpersonal dimension where what is unsaid can be as powerful as what is said.  Will they take a lead from the Gambles how to grow uo?

The plot of the story does sometimes get lost as the focus on Ivy and her personal journey eclipses the reason she is actually is in the school.  While I think that is deliberate Ivy actually has focused more on her life here for the first time rather than a case it can feel in the middle of the book a bit like it’s treading water.  A thread of a truly sleazy teacher starts to be picked up but then vanishes which felt like it had been cut. However, overall, I felt the actual mystery really works well and Ivy uncovers the truth that underneath this gleaming seat of learning and privilege there are always some much more normal tales of relationships and deceptions that really fuels the powerful finale.  Like all true noir you don’t feel it’s all wrapped up neatly at the end but perhaps nearly everyone has got what they deserved with perhaps just a tinge of hope for the future for some.

I found Magic for Liars a really good literary fantasy where the concept of lies told to others and even to our ourselves was well explored. Very rarely are these types of lies told for malice but more for people to justify what they feel is the right thing…often deluding themselves too that this is going to lead to good things for everyone. Not all lies are told by confidence tricksters and psychopaths often they’re just told by people under some form of pressure and it’s the long-term implications of them that are the truly damaging thing.  This is a very engrossing intelligent story I loved and will definitely be intrigued as to what future tales Gailey has to tell us.