Magic for Liars: A fresh spin on the “magical school” trope

Reposting to include Skye’s new review.

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsMagic for Liars by Sarah Gailey science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsMagic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

I recently enjoyed Sarah Gailey’s short story “STET,” on Tadiana’s recommendation, and decided I needed to check out more of Gailey’s work. When I saw their latest novel, Magic for Liars (2019), gleaming bright red at me from the library shelf, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Magic school meets detective thriller? Right up my alley, as I like both of those things. It was like asking me if I wanted vanilla and chocolate ice cream.

Ivy and Tabitha Gamble are twins, but Tabitha has magic and Ivy doesn’t. When the two were teens, Tabitha got to go away to magic school, while Ivy stayed home and dealt with regular high school and her mother’s terminal cancer. Now in their thirties, the sisters are increasingly estranged. Ivy is an alcoholic PI, and Tabitha is a teacher at a different magic school, Osthorne Academy. Then, the headmaster of Osthorne shows up in Ivy’s office. A teacher died under mysterious circumstances, and the headmaster wants Ivy to investigate. Though it will mean having to see her sister again, Ivy can’t resist the chance to solve a murder instead of the usual run of adultery and insurance fraud cases.

Ivy is offered lodging on the Osthorne campus, and begins to interview the students and faculty. Their social dramas, secret love affairs, dangerous experimental spells, and Chosen One prophecies might all be pieces of the puzzle Ivy is trying to solve.

Gailey puts a fresh spin on the “magic school” trope by showing it from an outsider’s point of view. Ivy’s feelings of inadequacy are palpable as her time at Osthorne continually reminds her of the life she could have lived if she’d had magic like Tabitha. When the students use magic for dumb adolescent mischief, it’s easy to understand why their flippancy about their gifts makes her angry.

Magic for Liars’ mystery plot works less well. It is way too obvious, way too early, both whodunit and why. Ivy is given several major clues, and overlooks them all. Gailey throws in a couple of red herrings that made me hope for a twist, but nope, the solution was pretty much what I’d guessed. The effect of this is that Ivy doesn’t come off as a very good detective. Then, the ending is anticlimactic on one front and left ambiguous on another.

Magic for Liars is an interesting look at magic-school stories from a different perspective, and a less successful murder mystery. The writing itself is well done, and Gailey seems to explore a wide range of unique ideas in their fiction, and I would definitely be willing to try out more of their work in the future.

~Kelly Lasiter

Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey


Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsMagic for Liars follows Ivy Gamble, a private investigator who’s just scraping by. Ivy reminds me of the Netflix version of Jessica Jones, especially in the way the book opens on her thoughts about her job: being a PI isn’t all she thought it would be, and she’s feeling dejected about her choices. That’s when a case comes calling that is nothing like her usual work of catching cheating spouses. Instead, Ivy is part of an investigation at a magic school, a place that causes her deep-seated discomfort that unfolds over the course of the book.

Right out of the gate, I must mention that yes, there is a magic school in this book like in the ever-ubiquitous HARRY POTTER series – it feels impossible not to mention similarities whenever a book with a school for magic comes along, but I’m not going to contrast Magic for Liars with HARRY POTTER. What I will say is that in this post-HARRY POTTER world, where magic schools can feel like over-trod territory, Magic for Liars proved to me that there still are fresh and interesting stories to be told about magic schools.

I would count myself as a fan of Gailey’s work: I adored the AMERICAN HIPPO series (which Jana reviewed) and I have been enthralled by many of their short fiction pieces, so I was very excited about this book when it was announced. And I enjoyed Magic for Liars, but I didn’t love it. Kelly talked in her review about how the murder mystery aspect of the story didn’t work for her, and while I was more surprised by how it all played out, I am also less versed in the mystery genre, so I would highly recommend reading Kelly’s review.

Something I’ve said in almost all my reviews that remains true is that I come to books for the characters. I found the cast of Magic for Liars both sympathetic and interesting for the most part. Gailey’s subversion of a few ingrained tropes made for some delightful moments that I think widely-read readers will appreciate quite a bit. By subverting and twisting tropes, Gailey puts the characters in situations that lend themselves to new and interesting actions and conversations that I enjoyed reading. However, I also felt that some characterizations were thinner than others, which made some of the motivations a bit murky for me up until the very end of the mystery.

I found the book’s twists to be satisfying enough, and the setting was a fresh and interesting take on a well-explored fantasy setting. I thought many of the characters were extremely interesting, and I liked how they worked through the complex situations around them. Ultimately, I liked this book and I continue to look forward to more work by Gailey, even if this isn’t my favourite piece of their work.

~Skye Walker

Published in June 2019. Sharp, mainstream fantasy meets compelling thrills of investigative noir in Magic for Liars, a fantasy debut by rising star Sarah Gailey. Ivy Gamble was born without magic and never wanted it. Ivy Gamble is perfectly happy with her life – or at least, she’s perfectly fine. She doesn’t in any way wish she was like Tabitha, her estranged, gifted twin sister. Ivy Gamble is a liar. When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where her estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic, reluctant detective Ivy Gamble is pulled into the world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister—without losing herself.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @cskyewalker.

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One comment

  1. I think I’ll pick this up at my library the next time I wander through there — your comments on the weaknesses of the mystery aspect are in line with what I’ve heard from other readers, but I am interested to see what Gailey does with the “magical school” setting. Very helpful review, Kelly! Thank you!

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