Early on in the pandemic, I sat in the antiseptic-drenched donation room of the Red Cross and tried to read The Butchering Art. It was, as I said at the time, a fascinating and exceptionally well-written book, but something about the written depictions of surgery theater and infection contrasting with the new fears of the coronavirus and the needle in my arm was too much. I don’t consider myself a squeamish person but at that time I had to put it down and read something cheerier. You know. Less blood. Less dying.
I don’t know if it’s a testament to how numb I’ve become to coronavirus fears over the last nine months or the strength of Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars that I read it ravenously while again donating blood. It’s true, the book has no infections this time and no talk of public surgeries, thankfully. But there is a nice bit of blood in the beginning because the murder victim at the heart of the story is literally split in two.
The setup for Magic for Liars is wonderfully simple and so obviously a good idea it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done before: boarding school for budding wizards and witches, plus a gritty, noir-style murder mystery. Ivy Gamble is a private investigator and she’s had success enough catching cheating spouses in the act, but she longs for something more. The opportunity to investigate a bizarre and grisly death at a prestigious school seems to be the fulfillment of that wish—if only it wasn’t the magic school her sister, Tabitha, attended and now teaches at. The same sister who used to rub Ivy’s decided lack of magical abilities in her face and all but disappeared after their mother’s death during their teenage years.
Despite these extremely valid reasons to say no, Ivy can’t turn down the chance to solve a real mystery. She gets far more than she bargained for, though, when she steps on campus. The victim’s death was ruled as accidental by the investigating magical council, but Ivy quickly finds plenty of suspicion to suggest otherwise. In addition to the magical shenanigans, Ivy has to peel back the layers of teenage rivalry, tip-toe around a Chosen One prophecy, navigate the thorny relationship with her sister—and maybe, if she has time, fall in love.
One of the things I loved most about Magic for Liars is how messy it is. The information Ivy gets is a mess. The parameters she has to work through are a mess. The students are, obviously, all messes because they are teenagers.
And most of all, Ivy herself is a mess (a real mess, not like an advertised mess). She’s spent two-thirds of her life feeling jealous of her sister, a Hermione Granger-ish star in Gailey’s wizarding world, both for the attention Tabitha got for having magic and for the outlet that provided Tabitha—but not Ivy—as their mother was dying. She’s jealous at how comparatively together Tabitha’s life appears. Being on campus and rubbing shoulders with all those magic users, Ivy decides to simply not mention the fact that she has none—a lie that requires digging deeper and deeper in deceit the farther she gets in her investigation. I loved how self-aware she was of what a colossally bad idea telling such a lie was, and how she very consciously decided she didn’t care at that particular moment.
It’s hard not to root for a flawed character who is honest with themselves.
In terms of the actual mystery, I happily followed Ivy’s investigation into the main mystery, blithely accepting her conclusions and unable to provide guesses of my own. But the smaller side mysteries were significantly less tricky to figure out. One of them I didn’t realize was a side mystery until its big reveal near the end. I don’t think the ease with which I pulled free those smaller knots is detrimental to the strength of the book overall, though.
Despite this being ostensibly a mystery, and having its central plot driven by a mystery, this is a story about character. This is a story about sisters, about siblings, about the relationships that tighten and fray as life happens. As I said, Ivy is honest with herself, which means she’s also honest about her part in their estrangement—and in what she wants their relationship to look like instead. She is living in a fantasy on multiple levels, but she knows it and she knows approximately how bad it will be when everything comes crashing down.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for that kind of character, that kind of person, even when you see the heartbreak coming a mile away.
Ivy’s a good character to sit with, and so is this book. I wouldn’t mind spending time in her world again.