A student, obsessed with a prophecy, finds a teacher dead in the library of his school, a certain school for people with special powers. Think you know where this is going? It’s not. It’s not Hogwarts or even Harry Potter, it’s Sarah Gailey’s new detective novel, Magic for Liars. Magic for Liars’s setting’s not the only pastiche, but this novel doesn’t live in the same universe as parody. Instead of “witch” and “wizard,” the spell-casting characters all use the term “mage” and it all takes place on the west end of the Pond. However, in classic detective story tradition, Magic for Liars uses familiar tropes to question motives for dishonest actions.
Pairing a detective story with a fantasy setting may not sound natural, but it’s certainly a bold direction to take. The mundane details that circulate in fan discussions (“what the Chosen One’s sex ed class like?”) become actual questions when a normal character not only enters the mix, but drives the stranger-comes-to-town plotline. When the mage cops provide less than satisfactory answers to the dead teacher, normal human shamus Ivy Gamble finds herself hired to investigate a case where the suspects include non-only teenagers and staff, but also Ivy’s own mage twin sister, Tabitha. Ivy and Tabitha have an estranged relationship, due to Ivy’s jealousy and Tabitha’s inability to magically heal their mother of cancer. Like many a beloved gumshoe, Ivy has to balance her high-functioning alcoholism with a complicated personal life, made more worse by the attentions of handsome teacher, Rahul, about whom she lies about having powers.
Ivy’s relationship with Rahul advances at a much more natural and healthier pace than most gumshoe romances, but it certainly does not help speed the plot along and it all goes south when he finds out that she’s been lying. A significant amount of Ivy’s detective work involves getting to know the world she, but not Tabitha, has been denied all these years. Tabitha does also appear to reach out to Ivy, which helps the story along, but, alas, cannot outlast the plot’s climax. Searching for the murderer, Ivy learns far more than she ever needed to know about the tricks played high schoolers who can use magic, but more importantly, she delves into the reasons her messy past couldn’t come together perfectly. The murder in the mage world does make Ivy take a hard look at escapsim and the reasons why liars might make good detectives, but seldom good healers.
Magic for Liars takes readers to a world of charms and spells only to examine the pain of loss and reality, much like the great, dark crime novels do. By knocking two genres head-to-head, Gailey has created a character who can’t outrun her demons in direction or the other, and results in a surprisingly meditative work. Fans of either genre will read and chew on it easily for the next half of the summer.
For more books and stories by Sarah Gailey, check out their website, sarahgailey.com.
Three stars out of five
Page Count: 333
Favorite quote: “She might be panicky for a few days, but then they’ll make out and she’ll have a big personal revelation about true love, and then she’ll be back in school next Monday with new bangs.”