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.
Ivy Gamble is not magic.
She will not be whisked away to train in a magician’s school where she will have all the glory her teeth can snatch. She is not the Chosen One, standing over her peers like a towering peak—all the possibilities of life, death, and magic spinning in her head. Instead, she will end up dragging her hopes behind her like a chastised child dragging her stuffed bear thumping up the stairs. Her life will settle into a humdrum rhythm, and some forty years later, she will be scraping a meager existence as a private investigator, anchored by the comforting weight of predictability—ordinary and scathingly unmagical.
Ivy had expended so much passion on this impossible dream, only to stand helpless as it was granted to others. Others like her twin sister of whom all she had left were memories, each as fragile as a wisp of smoke—unlike her resentment, for that had always been deep and ingrained in a way that Ivy tried to keep buried. But when Ivy is personally sought by the headmaster of the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages—where her sister works—to investigate a grisly murder, the opportunity is like food offered to a stomach left empty for too many days.
Ivy feels a surge of longing rising in her like a swell just at the thought of crossing the threshold into the Academy—that treacherous, involuntary pull—and, not for the first time, it flitted through her mind how simple it would be if this were her life. But it’s quickly dampened by a lurch of loss and nostalgia for something that has never been hers.
No, Ivy Gamble is not magic, but she’s an investigator—and a damn good one.
Rather than coasting on a well-worn narrative, in their novel Magic for Liars, author Sarah Gailey deviates refreshingly from the expected.
The novel’s big triumph lies in the manner in which it celebrates, overhauls, and pokes gentle fun at the “Chosen One” archetype, while also being an insightful conversation with genre staples and conventions. In fact, the book’s considerable charm hinges on its ability to work on two levels: Gailey attempts to subvert the genre, but they also revel in it, rolling around in fantasy tropes like a kitten in catnip.
The plot is simple, and for all its immersion in magic, the novel doesn’t fuss over the more magical aspects of its setting. The world of mages leaves plenty to explore, and because Ivy’s grasp of magic and its trappings is tenuous at best, her narrative often asks more questions than it answers. And there are only enough bread crumbs to propel the plot, to unveil the fears, hurts, and passions of the characters, to turn over the rocks and expose the wriggling secrets to the light.
There are plenty of nuances to that simplicity, though.
What makes the book most exciting—and worth galvanizing my will to persevere through the often-tepid pacing and some repetitive sections—is the way the author uses their toolbox of fantasy tropes selectively, looks at them with clinical eyes, exposing them, facing them, and effectively subverting them, all while deftly constructing an intriguing backdrop that’s equally outlandish and startingly ubiquitous.
When the gloss and mystery of newness, which had kept our narrator Ivy Gamble from seeing the Academy—and magic—with much objectivity wears off, we discover—alongside Ivy—that the reality is far more interesting than any idealized version could possibly be: Osthorne Academy for Young Mages is not unlike any other high school. Students, luxuriant in their own skills, extend their entertainment by spinning spells—not to carry out as tedious a task as assigned work, but to draw penis-shaped clouds, write enchanted love letters, relieve menstrual cramps and fuck each other without protection. It’s clear we’re in the hands of a playful writer, and, it’s what makes for the best bit in the book. Even Ivy’s resentment begins to flake away at the coltish youth inhabiting the academy, and like her, I soon forgot what I minded, utterly absorbed by this world’s abundant charm.
Still, Gailey never forgets that Magic for Liars is a thriller at its pounding heart, and the specter of the crime hangs hauntingly over everything. But driven as it may be by mystery and unanswered questions, the novel is, ultimately, about family, and the withered ties that bind siblings, even through years of separation. Although the author seems somewhat uncomfortable, in their rushed final act, with wrapping up the book, the ultimate reveal still jarred me. It was also, modestly, quietly profound. When it was all said and done, my mind was bristling out like needles and I was left feeling unsure how to feel about the whole thing.
Every detective story needs a detective, and Magic for Liar’s is, of course, Ivy Gamble.
Resentful, flawlessly petty and occasionally morally unconcerned, Ivy Gamble is not easy to embrace, but nonetheless, her narrative reflects a piercing intelligence and a passion that has never been given a chance to flourish. Ivy operates according to a personal code born of ocean-deep loneliness and a hunger for a little chaos and reckless danger to cope with the emptiness. By the end, however, she loses some of her sharp edges, melted away to smooth curves and my heart thawed for her. Ivy must decide the rules of her life and the kind of womanhood that she’s going to make for herself. She has measured her worth by her lack of magic for so long but there is no set way to be the kind of person that she wants to be, and Ivy lets the realization fill her.
All quibbles aside, Magic for Liars is a lovely, assured novel and I’m glad I picked it up!