This post is sponsored by Tor Books. All opinions expressed in this post are based on the writer’s personal views.
Ivy Gamble’s life as a Bay Area private detective isn’t particularly glamorous. Most of her cases involve philandering spouses or insurance fraud so, when she is presented with the opportunity to solve a murder, she takes it… Even if it happens to be at the magical academy where her estranged twin sister, Tabitha, teaches.
Ivy and Tabitha haven’t spoken for years, their relationship fractured by Tabitha’s revelation of magical power and the death of their mother. To put it in Harry Potter terms: It’s like if Petunia Dursley decided to become a PI instead of marrying Vernon and was hired by Dumbledore to solve Madame Pomfrey’s murder.
Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars is more Jessica Jones than Harry Potter or even The Magicians—it has hints of the first’s film noir protagonist and the last’s adult, modern fantasy elements. The murder mystery at its heart is more important to the narrative than any of the world’s rules of magic. This isn’t a story about magic; it is a story about privilege and what happens when one twin sister gets the opportunity to go to an elite, magical boarding school and the other has to stay at home without magic and, eventually, without her mother, too.
While Magic for Liars may not be a story about magic, it is a story that uses magic as a setting and narrative element in some fresh and fascinating ways. Here, magic serves as a stand-in for all kinds of power or privilege. It’s the thing that has separated Ivy from her sister. It’s the identity Ivy holds against her, and the one she goes to Osthorne looking to better understand.
“Somehow, I’d pictured Osthorne’s students as preternaturally self-possessed,” Ivy observes of the students when she first arrives and begins her investigaton, “as having some little extra bit about them that made them into something more than high school students … But these mages were, for the most part, kids … I kept waiting to see something amazing, something different. Something that would help me understand what made these kids different from me.”
One of the book’s major subplots involves a burgeoning romance between Ivy and Rahul, one of the teachers at the school. When Rahul makes the assumption that Ivy has magic, she doesn’t bother to correct him. She tells herself and us that it is for the good of the case, so that Rahul will be comfortable telling her things that he might not tell a non-magical person, but Ivy is mostly keeping the secret because she wants to know what it feels like. She can “pass” as a person with magic, so she does, and it makes for complex, gripping characterization.
If a romance with a possible suspect sounds like a bad case move, you’re not wrong. Ivy doesn’t always make the best choices—either for herself or for her career—but she possesses a self-awareness (“This isn’t a story about things I’m proud of,” Ivy tells us) paired with a commitment to moving steadily forward that makes her admirable if not likeable, relatable if not surprising.
The relationship at its center of this book is the one between Ivy and Tabitha, and the scenes between the two sisters are where Magic for Liars is at its best.
“I kept wanting to explain that I was a different person than the Ivy she remembers,” Ivy tells us, “but then I’d catch myself thinking that she was the exact same Tabitha I remembered, and so I’d doubt myself. Maybe I hadn’t changed. Maybe I wasn’t different. Maybe I just liked to tell myself that I’d come a long way—a convenient fiction to make it easier to keep going home to the same empty apartment every night.”
The mystery of who killed Osthorne’s health teacher is compelling, but the mystery of what happened to estrange these two women is the one that cuts the deepest, propelling the narrative forward whether you’re invested in the whodunnit or not.
Best of all, however, is the way Gailey creates an affinity between protagonist and reader—not inspite of Ivy’s lack of magical ability, but because of it. In a world where magic is possible, Ivy is real in her complexities, flaws, and un-magicness, giving murder mystery fans an entry point into a contemporary adult fantasy and speculative fiction fans an excuse to fall into a character-driven whodunnit.