We all have choices, don’t we? Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Ivy Gamble is an almost-solvent private investigator based out of the gentrifying Bay Area, working from her basement office to resolve insurance disputes and prove marital infidelities. She’s making do, at least, until an unwanted client brings her a case she can’t refuse (or, chooses not to refuse): there has been a violent death among the staff at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages and the headmaster believes it was murder. The sizable paycheck draws Ivy into the world she’s spent her adult life trying to avoid—a subculture of magic and privilege where her twin sister Tabitha has been flourishing since their teen years, now an instructor herself.

The murdered staff member, teenagers with their hierarchies, a chosen-one’s prophecy, and worse all pull Ivy in contradictory directions as she arrives to take on her first homicide investigation. Faced with her estranged sister—the better, more magical, more accomplished sibling—she also has personal problems to juggle alongside her detective work. However, all is not as it seems at Osthorne, and pleasant privileged surfaces often have quite a lot to hide.

Allow me to break the illusion of critical distance for a moment, because it needs to be said: 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, but I got myself together, and here we are.

Part of the reason for this response is that 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. Gailey has stitched West-coast noir to literary familial drama to the magic teens of a Rowling or Pullman novel; the book stands on its own without familiarity to those genres, but if the reader knows what’s afoot—has expectations to torque, combine, provoke—the narrative effects are multiplied in a complex dance of audience-to-craft-to-text. (And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as a critic, that’s the kind of shit I live for.)

One of the reasons the novel is so gripping, I suspect, is that the expectations of those genres are so wildly different that the mélange creates something paradoxically familiar but entirely new. Gailey deploys the “chosen one who’ll change the world of magic” archetype within their mage’s academy—but their protagonist, Ivy Gamble, is a financially struggling PI with an alcohol problem and an off-center moral compass. Ivy’s estrangement from her sister and their familial trauma of a loved one passing from fast-acting cancer presents a different potential arc. Smash them all together and it’s anyone’s guess what the results will be. The successful misdirections are balanced by the moments that the text embraces its expected maneuver, which in the end keeps the reader flat-footed and guessing in the best possible fashion.

The combination of adult, damaged, lonely Ivy with a school full of magical teenagers is a gift that keeps on giving. She’s so envious of their gifts, the magic that skipped over her to bless Tabitha instead, but is also an adult shocked to nostalgia by how young the kids all are. Given the power at their disposal, they still choose to write enchanted love notes, to fuck each other without adequate protection and resultant costs, to scrawl “SAMANTHA IS A SLUT” on a locker in enchanted stinging paint that won’t come off. While Ivy isn’t necessarily the most responsible narrator—this is a noir, after all—she’s mature, and Gailey’s ability to reflect that painful, tender sensation when faced with teenagers who might waste all their talent is intense.

The plot, too, is stunning. Magic for Liars has an excellent grasp on the structure of mysteries; it isn’t just an “adult” take on a magic school, because we’ve all seen that before (and not to great effect). Gailey does not rely on the coolness factor of their concept—in fact, the coolness factor is more or less backgrounded immediately to the work of the story, the characters, and the skillful manipulation of expectation. This book has far more going for it than mere surface. It works from the scratchy noir gloss on top to the raw emotional core that ultimately drives the characters from teen to adult, victim to perpetrator, outside observers and innocents alike.

And speaking of that core, another factor that makes Gailey’s romp through genre so effective is their strategic and deliberate use of emotional realism. While the tropes in play all have the potential for melodrama, and often offer predictably melodramatic choices as a result, Gailey often refuses to accept those paths. Or, if the path is taken, the actual human costs come to the forefront immediately. Choices have consequences and people have their own unique responses to manipulation or damage.

Spoilers follow.

Given the constant conversation with genre that Gailey has engaged in throughout the book, it’s sort of a requirement to acknowledge and discuss the ending where all those choices come to roost. At the resolution we discover that human emotional realities rest at the center of the narrative tropes: Tabitha did discover how to do the surgical process and remove her girlfriend’s cancer, all alone—but she fell asleep at the end, unwatched and unassisted, and Sylvia died as a result. It’s unfair and it’s awful. Sometimes bad things just happen, as Ivy observed earlier in the book, but it was also the result of choices Tabitha made. She experimented on and horribly traumatized a teenage girl needing her help, for her own gain—and then instead of involving help to treat her girlfriend, acted alone again, with no sense of consequences or safety.

But Ivy lets her go under the deal that she becomes a researcher with checks and balances, agreeing to never work with kids again. The secret will die held between the Gamble sisters. It’s the most satisfyingly real ending Gailey could’ve come to. Not gritty for the sake of grittiness, just a choice made between people that is ethically unpleasant but understandable. Ivy chose a compromised path to spare her sister from judgement and grief while also sparing the academy from having her still in contact with children. It’s horrifying but entirely possible, the inevitable conclusion Ivy’s been teasing us with since her first reflective observation that, given a thousand choices, “I was so close to making the right one.”

Magic for Liars is a perfect, spare, delectable novel that features a masterful narrative structure, terribly human characters occupying realistically magical settings, and more. The prose is spot-on and paints an intimate, flawed portrait of how a world like Gamble’s would function, from the moment she tells the disbelieving bartender magic exists to the moment she walks out on her sister. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Magic for Liars is available from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novel here.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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