BOOK REVIEW: Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Magic, when you think about it, is terrifying. The real time manipulation of  reality through human force of will, not the comforting, consensual lie of stage magic. Or at least, most stage magic (Spoilers, sweetie). Ivy Gamble doesn’t find magic terrifying, just annoying. You’re either born able to use magic or not and Ivy wasn’t. Her twin, Tabitha, was and the horror of living just to the left of the impossible has soured Ivy’s relationship with her sister for years. Until she gets a call from the headmistress of the Osthrone Academy where Tabitha is on staff. A member of the faculty has been killed and she wants Ivy to find out who did it. So, Ivy goes to Osthrone and finds herself investigating a murder, the culture at the school and, against every wish she has, her own past.

Gailey’s long form debut has every ounce of the wit, invention and gleeful subversion of their novellas while adding extra layers of nuance, theme and a truly glorious piece of textual close up magic. The first few chapters will convince you, even as I tell you this, the novel is at least partially about a good-natured parody of the Harry Potter franchise. As it goes on though, that element shifts with the mercurial speed of a card sharp, becoming whatever the book requires it to be at any given time. It’s endlessly clever and more importantly, endlessly humane. This is a look at the idea of a chosen one with the compassion and pragmatism of a world that has to survive their existence. Not so much the boy who lived as the civilians who frantically tried to escape his story intact.

More importantly it’s a phenomenally good novel about high school and the common hell we all suffer there. Gailey expertly weaves tiny, massive personal catastrophes into the supernatural tapestry of the story. This is a school just like any other, full of terrified, horny idiot children trying their best to not be thrown from the hormonal motorbike they’re all clinging to. It’s also both a deeply weird and reassuringly familiar look at school life. You’ll see people you know here as well as, perhaps, yourself. All of them flawed, all of them human and all of them capable of offhanded, terrifying power.

That power and it’s impact is what drives the novel and also cites this firmly as one of the finest pieces of both urban fantasy and crime fiction written so far this century. Gailey’s world-building is needlepoint precise, giving us just enough education to perform and them plenty of room to move. Magic is the point, the destination, the drug and weapon of choice for every one of these plots. But it’s also different in every one. Only Ivy, the last honest woman at Osthrone, can see what’s happening and she’s so cut off from her past, herself and her truth that even she struggles. All of which builds to one of the strongest endings I’ve read so far this decade where the novel’s twin engines of exhausted compassion and magical innovation collide. It’s stunningly, achingly realized and leaves you and Ivy in the last place you’d expect but the place Ivy thinks she should be. She may well be right too. Either way, Marlowe would tip his hat approvingly and pick up the tab. Ivy might even let him.

Magic for Liars is absolutely on my Hugo ballot next year and it’s out now from Tor. You should buy it.