In Sarah Gailey’s debut novel, Magic For Liars, twin sisters Ivy and Tabitha Gamble grow apart after Tabitha is admitted to an elite boarding school and returns a very different person. As Ivy narrates, “Her long hair—used to be plain old ‘dark brown,’ but after she came back from school it was something else, something richer like chestnut or umber or ocher—hung in soft waves, and her large brown eyes were the same as mine but more somehow, more sparkling, more alive. Better.” The problem was that Tabitha hadn’t just changed schools; she’d changed genres.
Tabitha manifested magical powers as a child and was swept into a secret world of mages (they don’t like to be called witches or wizards). Ivy feels abandoned as she copes with the decidedly mundane problems of getting through high school and watching their mother die of cancer. Magic For Liars is set years after Ivy barely graduated and started working as a private investigator, having failed to achieve her dream of joining the FBI. Fully estranged from Tabitha, Ivy is pulled back into her world by the headmaster of Osthorne Academy after a teacher is found dead in the restricted theoretical magic section of the school’s library. The official investigation found that she died in a personal experiment gone wrong, but the headmaster wants a second opinion. Positing that Ivy’s unique position as a detective who knows about the magical world but isn’t part of it gives her a fresh perspective, the headmaster asks her to search the school for the murderer.
Imagining a Harry Potter novel written by Megan Abbott is a phenomenal setup for a book, and Gailey provides a decidedly more grounded version of the magic school experience. Located in Northern California, Osthorne more closely resembles a fancy American prep school than Hogwarts. The most magical thing about it might be its seemingly earthquake-proof brick. Inside its walls, Ivy must reconnect with her sister, who is a theoretical magic teacher, and confront the better life she might have had if she’d also been capable of magic. She resents the students who she feels have been given an impossible gift but use it for decidedly juvenile and petty purposes like putting up graffiti that can’t be removed and conjuring penis-shaped clouds to sail through the hallways.
Ivy’s chief suspects become Dylan DeCambray, a troubled senior obsessed with the idea that he’s a prophesied chosen one, and his half-sister, Alexandria, the ruthless and powerful head of a carefully cultivated clique of girls who can intimidate even the faculty. Unfortunately, they never get the development needed to make them feel like anything more than moving pieces of the plot. While the story itself follows the beats of a noir perfectly, down to an ending that delivers only pain for everyone involved, it’s not quite twisty enough. I had the answer to the mystery figured out a full hundred pages before it was taking Ivy by surprise.
Gailey is primarily interested in exploring the relationship between Ivy and Tabitha and how Ivy’s professional duties get tangled in her personal desire for reconciliation. The author pens excellent scenes where the two of them are awkwardly feeling at the barriers and gaps that have formed between them and considering a way to become friends instead of strangers. It’s a lovely look at sibling rivalry, how misunderstandings can last for years, and the delicate and painful work required to admit fault and accept apologies.
Compromising and complicated relationship plots are a staple of noir, but with Tabitha serving as Ivy’s femme fatale, Gailey is left without a romantic plot for the hard-drinking, perpetually sleep-deprived and bedraggled PI. So the author slapped in a rom-com plot that sees Ivy getting involved with the handsome physical magic teacher, Rahul Chaudhary, while never correcting his assumption that she is also a mage, stringing him along with borrowed lingo and BS. As sultry as their scenes might be, they’re almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the story. That’s an unacceptable waste of pages considering how thin the development of the other characters and the world itself is.
Rather than keeping them separate, Gailey marries magic and technology. Kids go to the school nurse for birth control pills and alchemical tinctures for cramps. They send text messages but reserve really secret communications for magic notes where the words disappear when read. But Gailey still fails to imagine how mages fit into the world at large and what prospects await them besides the most obvious fields like magical healer, teacher, or law enforcement officer. Tabitha’s talent is identified by a teacher at a conventional school, but it’s unclear if mages are placed in such roles explicitly for that purpose or if the magical economy is just so thin that most need to find employment outside of it. Magic For Liars is a standalone book and doesn’t have the burden of setting up for an entire new modern fantasy world, but just a bit of extra information would have gone a long way toward making the setting feel better defined. It also would have improved the mystery by obfuscating the elements that Gailey only bothers to explain because they’re key to the plot.
Several times throughout the book, Ivy shows that she’s never really abandoned the dream of unlocking her magical talent. She stares at burnt-out lightbulbs and wills them to work again, taking a thrill from a flicker of illumination and despairing when it eventually peters out. That same feeling permeates Magic For Liars. The book feels so close to being magical, but never finds a way to achieve its full power.
Author photo © Allan Amato 2019.