Published by Tor Books on June 4, 2019
Sharp, mainstream fantasy meets compelling thrills of investigative noir in this fantasy debut by rising star Sarah Gailey.
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 could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.
I confess I had never even heard of this book, despite its appearances on multiple “best of 2019” websites. But when I signed up for Lauren‘s annotated book swap, I was partnered with the sweet Alicia, who predominantly loves fantasy. I thought to myself, “Ah, fuck.” But I pulled up her Amazon wish list to see if there was a book I had half a grain of interest in reading, and lo and behold, there Magic for Liars sat. Its cover was bordering on heinous, it didn’t even have an average 4 star review, but I couldn’t get my mind off the premise so I bought it anyway. I am proud to say I ate this book up with a spoon, loved every minute of annotating it, and hope Alicia loves reading it like I did!
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
Ivy and Tabitha Gamble are twin sisters, with one notable difference: one day when they were kids, Tabby began to manifest magical powers, and Ivy never did. Whisked away to a magic school to learn how to harness her powers, Tabby rarely got to see Ivy, and when she did they fought a lot – after all, it’s a lot on anyone to be the boring, normal twin to your sister’s perfection. Their mother became gravely ill with cancer while their father withered away, and still Tabitha stayed away.
Years have gone by, and resentment has festered like an open sore. Now the girls are estranged and in their thirties, Ivy works as a Theoretical Magic professor at a high school for magical children, while Ivy is a private eye, working primarily with adulterous spouses, making ends meet but sort of hating the monotony of her day-to-day life. And then one morning, everything changes when the headmaster from Tabitha’s institution – the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages – arrives at her office. There’s been a murder on campus, she says, and while the authorities have ruled it an accidental self-inflicted death, she knows that’s just not true. And being Tabby’s sister, surely she can help?
What follows is the perspective of a non-magical woman thrust into the world of people with magical powers. Ivy gets to know staff and students at Osthorne, and develop her own theories about what happened the tragic night the academy’s beloved teacher died. Nothing is as it seems, and no alibi is completely airtight. In a school where terrible locker graffiti can be made permanent with just a spell, one student is convinced he is his generation’s “chosen one,” and someone seems capable of a mind control they shouldn’t be able to possess, nothing is as easy as it seems. This was definitely a murder, and it’s up to Ivy to determine who – and why – this death happened.
The Bottom Line
Osthorne functions refreshingly just like your high school did. There are just as many cliques and groups, but they have the added fun of things like penis-shaped cloud conjuring. At the end of the day, even as magical teens, the students are still teens. Page one of the book makes a tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter reference, and makes it glaringly known that this ain’t your mama’s Hogwarts.
These teens are horny, they’re gossips, and they don’t particularly want to do school work any more than your “normal” teen does. I really enjoyed that about this book – while one kid might think he’s the chosen one, he’s also still a kid. I really felt for Ivy – what it must be like being the less than perfect sister, the “other” one, the one that didn’t get anything cool while her sister got it all. I enjoyed the supporting characters – the stern yet fair headmaster Torres, the icy (but you know she has a soft heart somewhere) school secretary and nurse, Mrs. Webb. Even the love interest, Rahul. There are two LGBT relationships in this book too, and the representation is just great.
So what fell flat, Patricia?
This felt very “Petunia and Lily” to me, in the sense that the non-magical sister is estranged from and really dislikes her magical sister, even though it’s obvious she’d repair that relationship in a heartbeat if given the opportunity. Ivy also has this uncanny knack of doing the dumbest thing possible in this case – she has some good ideas, but it’s like her inner filter is just gone, and it left me frustrated in several parts.
Most notably, it’s that Ivy is an unreliable narrator, but not in the fun way. She lets everyone at Osthorne think she is capable of magic (save for the headmaster). I understand that she wants to know how it might feel to be “in on the secret,” so to speak, but she had to have known it isn’t possible to hold onto that for any length of time successfully without spilling the beans. Why lie at all? She set precedents with key players in the story early on that hinged on them believing she was magical, and it – of course – eventually begins to collapse like an under-performing souffle.
There is a lot that I did like here, and it doesn’t overshadow the rest. I adored the realistic teens with the burden of magical powers, the moral of the story and the climax at the end were a gut punch in the best way possible. I enjoyed seeing how the world might be if we did have small pockets of magic – what little things would change in our day-to-day? We see Tabitha do little things like change the color of her drink at a bar, or turn her coaster from paper to plastic to wood to metal – just small things, but how cool would that be? But they still struggle with the normal things – bullies to birth control – and I think that really says a lot about how being a partially magical society couldn’t just cure the world. A lot of people found Ivy whiny and annoying, but personally I think it was a fair character development for her – I’d probably be a functional alcoholic too if I thought my mage sister could have cured our mother’s cancer and chose not to, if my sister was off enjoying the life of a mage while I stayed at home in my dingy apartment taking surveillance photos of some guy’s wife all day.
Overall, I really very much enjoyed this story and couldn’t recommend it enough. I love urban fantasy and boarding school stories, so add that to my love of thrillers and this was a slam dunk for me. I hope you enjoy it too.
“Even after everything–even with everything that was still between us, that would probably always be between us–she was my sister. I was born reaching for her.”
“Tabitha stuck a finger into her cocktail, turning the drink an offensively bright shade of pink. “What’d you just do?” I asked around a mouthful of half-popped popcorn kernels. “I turned it pink,” she said. “Why?” She shrugged. “So it’ll be pink.”