‘Magic For Liars’ delighted me because it did something unexpected with the ‘Murder In A School For Magic’ concept.
The other books that I’ve read with broadly similar themes establish a contract between writer and reader that says something like: ‘We both know I’m giving you Urban Fantasy here but I’ll make it interesting and surprising and internally consistent so relax and have some fun.’
Sarah Gailey starts from a different place. She starts with, ‘What if magic was not just real but taken for granted? The province of a gifted elite to be sure but still just another thread in American society. Now imagine that you’re one a pair of twin sisters and you have no magic and your sister has so much of it that everything is effortless for her and no matter how hard you work, you can never have what she has. What would it be like to grow up like that, with a mirror-image sister who reflects not the you that you’ve become but the you who you could have been if only you’d been the one born with magic? Finally, imagine that, in your mundane life, you’ve become a competent Private Investigator, albeit on a diet of cheating spouses and insurance fraudsters, and then you are invited by the head of the prestigious magic school at which your estranged sister teaches, to investigate a suspicious death on campus. Who would you be when your world and your sister’s world had to co-exist?
The answer in Ivy Gamble’s case is that she would be who she has always been, someone who habitually lies to herself and others.
‘Magic For Liars’ is a vine that flourishes on the trellis of a good mystery. A teacher’s body has been found, bisected, in the restricted section of the school library, amongst the books that whisper to one another and may perhaps call your name. There’s a thought-through system of magic and magical education that goes beyond wand-waving and Dog Latin. There are secrets and a suspect pool that extends across staff and students and the resolution is both surprising and satisfying. Yet, the mystery supports rather than powers the book.
‘Magic For Liars’ is a deeply personal first-person account that focuses not so much on the woman who died or even on finding the person who killed her, but on Ivy Gambles’ internal conflicts: the lies she chooses to tell herself and others, the life she wants but can’t have, the toxic mixture of love, hate, jealousy and resentment that characterises her relationship with her sister and the pain and instability that comes from her unanchored sense of identity.
I was fascinated by what I read. The book kept getting stronger, resisted clichés and tropes, stuck with being character-based, took me through a mystery that worked and that I couldn’t guess the answer to and left me somewhere unexpected that felt real, like more than the solution to a mystery, like a milestone in a life.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Magic For Liars’. Xe Sands’ narration is impeccable. She brings Ivy Gamble to life. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.