by Sarah Gailey
Hardcover, 333 pg.
Tom Doherty Associates, 2019
Read: June 24 – 25, 2019
|But this? A real murder case? This was the kind of thing that private detectives didn’t do anymore. It was what had made me get my PI license in the first place―the possibility that I might get to do something big and real, something nobody else could do. I didn’t know the first thing about solving a murder, but this was my chance to find out if I could really do it. If I could be a real detective, instead of a halfway-there failure. If this part of my life could be different from all the other parts, all the parts where I was only ever almost enough.
I won’t try to pinpoint the first lie I told myself over the course of this case. That’s not a useful thread to pull on. The point is, I really thought I was going to do things right this time. I wasn’t going to fuck it up and lose everything. That’s what I told myself as I stared at the old picture of me and Tabitha.
This time was going to be different. This time was going to be better. This time, I was going to be enough.
I can’t describe the book more succicently than the blurb does, so let’s use it and save us all some time (if you ignore the 4 drafts of it that I’ve abandoned):
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.
Ivy is a PI (much more on that in a moment), a Muggle (if you will allow me to import a term), who is totally not jealous of her twin sister, Tabitha, a gifted magic user. Except that she’s absolutely jealous and angry with her sister for somethings she did and didn’t do back in high school. But she knows about the world of magic―at least that it exists―which makes her the best candidate to come in and investigate the murder that has been officially described as an accident.
There’s a Hogwarts joke on page one, which was a relief for me―it was going to be that kind of book. Yeah, there’s magic and fantasy elements, but there’s also SF/F fiction and an awareness of it. So there’s a Potter-esque element to this, but there’s a very The Magicians feel, too. The magic in it is at once like most Fantasy/Urban Fantasy magic, but Gailey puts a distinctive stamp on it―it’s as fantastic as you want it to be, but it’s also pretty dull (except in a couple of scenes). Dull’s not the right word, but most of the time you see magic, it’s not as exciting as it was the first few times you saw it in Hogwarts (or Diagon Alley) or in Brakebills. Which is because the focus isn’t on the magic―the focus is on the relationship between Ivy and Tabitha, Ivy coming to terms with her Muggle-ness/place in the world, and events and relationships with the students. Now, when the story calls for magic to take center stage, it does so in a wonderful way―but typically, the magic takes a back seat to other things.
Ironically enough, given the setting, Ivy Gamble might be the most realistic PI that I’ve read about lately. The types of cases she works, her financial situation, her awareness of her liabilities (as quoted above, she knows the case she’s taken on is beyond her grasp―but that doesn’t mean she won’t try), the way she thinks about life. She screams authentic―at least compared to most fictional counterparts. She’s good at what she does, but she’s no Spenser, Elvis Cole or Lydia Chin―she’s close to Kinsey Millhone, but not quite. I love listening to her talk about being a private detective:
|Here’s the truth about most detective work: it’s boring, grueling, and monotonous. It involves a lot of being in the right place at the wrong time. But if you spend enough hours being in the right place, eventually, it’ll be the right time. You have to be able to recognize it.|
|The other active cases were small potatoes-two disability claims, three cheating spouses, one spouse who wasn’t cheating after all but whose husband couldn’t believe that she had really taken up pottery. She was pretty good at it too.|
|I’ve always had a good memory for names. Someone once told me at a conference that’s all it really takes to be a private detective: a good memory for names and faces, an eyeball for details, and. a halfway decent invoicing system.|
And while Ivy may not be the best detective in the world, she’s good―and she knows how to put on enough of a show that she can convince everyone else that she’s good enough for the task at hand. While she’s lying to herself about a lot, she’s lying to everyone around her, too. She’s not the only one who’s gifted at self-delusion/self-deception. The word “Liars” is in the title for a reason, and the attentive reader (even the half-awake reader) will see why.
The book’s about a lot more than self-deception, there’s a lot about the role of/importance of family to one’s identity―and how a lack of communication coupled with poor assumptions can warp that.
Gailey kept the plot moving quickly―even as the emotional and familial aspects of the story took their time to work things out. Which is a pretty neat trick, a lot of authors would’ve let things slow down so Ivy and Tabitha could rebuild their relationship, so Ivy could do the soul-searching she needed to, to get deeper into some of the high school relationships, etc. And Gailey hits all those beats (and more), but she does it while keeping the pace going, so you’re turning the pages as fast as you can even while you want to explore the quieter aspects of the story.
Magic for Liars is well-written, well-paced, with a great solution―both to the main plot and to the other storylines, in a wonderful world told in a creative way. But I wanted a little more from it. I can’t put my finger on just where it came up a little short for me, but it did. But make no mistake―I recommend people go read this, because I think most readers will like it more than I did. And I did like the book, I just wanted to like it more. I can’t imagine that Gailey will return to this world (or to these characters, anyway)―but if I’m wrong, I’ll definitely read a sequel. Either way, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for whatever Gailey’s got coming next