It’s prom night of senior year, and Alexis has made a huge mistake. She left the afterparty with a boy she knew she didn’t like just to make her friend jealous. If only that were where her mistake ended—unfortunately for Alexis, her magic powers go a little haywire in the process, and the boy, well, let’s just say he doesn’t survive the experience. With blood in her mouth and a glittery dress she’ll never be able to look at again, Alexis does the only thing she knows to do: she calls her friends for help.
Secret powers and secret murder cover-ups are in good supply in Sarah Gailey’s new YA novel When We Were Magic, but love and friendship are the real stars of the show. As Alexis, Roya, Iris, Paulie, Maryam, and Marcelina attempt to dispose of the pieces of what-once-was-Josh, it becomes clear that the reverb of Alexis’ actions won’t be felt by her alone. She’s got to learn to share the burden if she wants any chance at all of returning to her normal life—unrequited crushes and all. But Alexis isn’t sure if she deserves to have a normal life. She isn’t even sure if she deserves the unconditional love of her friends.
I suspect a lot of folks are going to gush about the strong female friendships in When We Were Magic, but I want to get two things straight: that not all of these friends are girls (hyper-competent genderqueer witch, be still my heart), and that what makes this depiction truly special is not that they’re girls but that they’re queer. This isn’t to say that every character is queer, but that the friend group is messy and complicated and almost comically intense in the way that queer friends have a tendency to be. Everyone’s a little in love with each other and that can be painful but it can also be magical. The last time I saw this executed well was probably Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, but I appreciate the gender differences and diversity in Gailey’s depiction, and that we are thrown in media-res and asked to trust that these relationships are as strong as the narrator says they are. Each friendship in When We Were Magic is fully-realized and believable, despite having so few pages to accomplish the task. These relationships quite literally drove the whole story forward, which is about as true-to-life of my own high school experience as any.
All of this gushing aside, I ended up liking the individual elements of When We Were Magic more than the sum of its parts and couldn’t put my finger on why at first. This is the kind of book that’s written for folks like me and I was consistently delighted by its characters and by individual moments (The reservoir scene? The coyote scene? Alright, so I’m gay). Ultimately what it came down to were tone, consequences, and the interrelations of those things. The entire plot of the novel is wrapped up in the consequences of Alexis’ and her friends’ actions and the entire emotional arc has to do with accepting those consequences and trusting others to share them. However the consequences themselves are magic and therefore more symbolic than true-to-life—losing the ability to see color, losing the ability to dream, rather than looming threats of imprisonment or grief. It’s not that I needed the characters to suffer for their actions—I quite liked the light tone of the novel. But I do think that gesturing at guilt without actually exploring it came off as a little gauche in light of the other life lessons Alexis learns on every page.
These life lessons—asides explained by Alexis like “it’s okay to like makeup” and “most parents are just trying their best”—might have bothered me under normal circumstances. It’s not that I disagreed with the statements being made, but that it felt like I was being condescended to as a reader. But add to this that the person explaining the facts of life literally exploded a guy’s dick on the first page, and I was left with the feeling that Alexis was not perhaps learning the lessons that she needed to learn from the whole experience. A hint of irony would have gone a long way.
Ultimately, I wish that When We Were Magic had been an adult novel so it could have leaned more fully into its darkness and weirdness. Alexis gets to kiss the girl at the end and all of her friendships are in tact, and that’s sweet and all, but it’s also at odds with the novel’s darkly funny undercurrents. I like Gailey’s work in general and this won’t stop me from seeking it out by any means—but it also really highlights what they excel at as an author and what happens when it gets sidelined in favor of a sweet tone and happy ending.
All of this being said—I’d rather see a novel with a cast of queer, racially-diverse characters not blow me out of the water than not be written at all. I hope this book finds its audience. We deserve to find ourselves on the page, and more than one reader is likely to see a little bit of magic in themselves as a result of this book.
When We Were Magic is available from Simon Pulse.
Em Nordling reads, writes, and manages research in Louisville, KY.