Book Club: Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
Another swing and a hit from Jen! I always love Jen’s reviews and with input from her last book review, we decided that this would be a great next book to write about. It sounds like Magic for Liars is an interesting read for those who are into badass characters, Harry Potter-esque magical situations, and mystery lovers alike!
Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magic. She is perfectly happy with her life—she has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It's a great life and she doesn't wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha. But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.
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Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey was exactly what I was craving from an end-of-summer book - lots of heart, intrigue, a little fantasy, and murder mystery. It is my theory that this book may be a satirical take on the whole fantasy magic school genre, as Gailey plays with the readers' expectations and juxtaposes them against the most “normal” version possible. That being said I haven’t seen a whole lot of other reviewers noting this take, so it’s possible I’m just reading too much into things. Regardless, my quick review is that I enjoyed this book and I thought it was a good summer read. The plot of the story is in the title - its a murder mystery at a magical school where everyone is a liar with the best intentions at heart.
I’ve explained to friends the premise of this book by saying that it's like if Marvel’s Jessica Jones went to Hogwarts to solve a murder and happened to have a twin sister who is a teacher there. That being said the only similarities between the characters of Jessica Jones and Ivy Gamble is that they are both private investigators (PIs) who have dark/snarky senses of humors, have trouble reconciling their pasts, and have a bit of alcohol problems. However, while some of Jessica’s strife comes from her being gifted and different, Ivy’s problems come from the fact she ordinary while her sister is exceptionally magically gifted.
Gailey starts this book in the prologue with a murder in the library in the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages. Dylan DeCambray is hiding from one of the school staff, Mrs. Webb, in the stacks of the library so he can study rather go to dinner. While Dylan stumbles past the theoretical magic section and out of the library, he hears Mrs. Webb screaming in a magically amplified volume. When he rushes back, he finds that Mrs. Webbs was screaming over the discovery of another teacher, Sylvia Capley, cut in half in the theoretical magic section. As we enter the first chapter, we are introduced to the PI Ivy Gamble on her way to work when she gets mugged at knifepoint at her office door. Shortly after she’s surprised by a woman who just suddenly appeared in her office with our warning or using the door. The woman turns out to be Marion Torres, the headmistress of the Osthorne Academy, who wants to hire Ivy to investigate a recent murder. Ivy, however, is hesitant because firstly, she isn’t magical, secondly, she’s never investigated a murder before, and thirdly, Ivy’s estranged twin sister, Tabitha, teaches at Osthorne. Ivy, however, decides to take the case after some discussion of retainers and case particulars.
I enjoyed the author’s world-building, which was kept minimal. The wizarding world and boarding schools have been popularizedthanks to the Harry Potter series, Gailey decides to do something unique - she makes the teenagers attending the high school act like teenagers complete with romances, drama, love letters in lockers, cell phones, gossip, and teen pregnancies. Additionally, character flaws are very grounded in reality - the Chosen One is fighting that-which-shall-not-be-named and is, understandably an anxious ball of a teenage boy; the main character’s insecurities about living in sister’s shadow prevents her from seeing the fact that no one can actually tell them apart (despite any magical enhancements) and the whole school treats her with kindness and respect; teachers don’t have spells to help them catch cheaters; and they have a serious graffiti problem. What struck me as an avid reader of sci-fi and fantasy is that this book was set in a very American high school and this lends itself very expertly to the way that Gailey plays with the readers expectations juxtaposing the reader’s expectations of magical schools and murder mysteries and rather than choosing the direct opposite making the reality of those expectations as grounded and normal as possible.
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As a reader, it is fascinating to me that this story is all about dichotomies, possibilities, perceptions, and parallels in storytelling. Ivy and Tabitha are twins, but they couldn’t be more different - where Ivy is a straight snarky loner, obsessed with work and whose best friend is a the local bartender, Tabitha is vivacious, intelligent, beautiful, and gay; however, throughout the book we learn that the ways they thought they were different were merely their insecurities and what actually makes them fundamentally different is not what anyone actually thought. Ivy is upset with Tabitha throughout the book because she uses her magic to change her appearance - styling her hair, making her eyes bigger, or erasing fine lines, but didn’t use magic to help their late mother with cancer. Tabitha made Ivy feel insecure and abandoned as a young girl and when they meet each other again as adults, we see, through Ivy’s PI skills, that the sisters almost parallel each other and Ivy becomes obsessed with the possibility that they can become friends again.
As Ivy investigates, she lets the population of Osthorne believe she is magical to get the most honest responses from them. Ivy constructs an image of herself investigating the library with arrows pointing to suspects and clues on littered around the table, knowing that students and staff will see her taking notes and want to share information just to be involved in the investigation - and it works. One person whom Ivy keeps running into is the Rahul Chaudhary, a teacher in the Physical Magics department. Ivy develops a bit of a crush on him and finds herself fantasizing about being a better (different) version of herself - one who is magical, mysterious, and fun to be around. Rahul likewise really starts falling hard for Ivy. Rahul helps Ivy answer some of the more magically based elements of the investigation and which of course he finds a bit curious, but seems to genuinely enjoy Ivy’s company and helping her to answer questions about the case. In the end, the spoilery-resolution of their fling perfectly juxtaposes and compliments the story - as Ivy’s been visualizing and choosing possible versions of herself, Rahul falls hardest for her when she’s just herself, but it’s her lies of omission that may tear them apart. I’m sure it’s obvious, but as a reader, I shipped them as hard as I shipped Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
Another dichotomy of characters is Dylan and Alexandria DeCambray, a pair of half-siblings from a powerful family in the magic world. Dylan’s whole world revolves around a prophecy predicting either he or his half-sister are the Chosen One of their generation and everyone assumes it must be him because Alexandria is only obsessed with being the queen bee at Osthorne. Dylan and Alexandria’s differences parallel Ivy and Tabitha pretty nicely as well - Dylan is a loner and Alexandria is a social butterfly; Dylan wears his emotions on his sleeve and Alexandria excels at manipulating everyone; Dylan is drowning in anxiety and Alexandria revels in the power that causing anxiety gives her. Despite these juxtaposing characteristics, in the end, it’s Dylan whose obsession with being the chosen one makes him outright violent and Alexandria to become defensive and dangerously reactionary.
The resolution of this murder mystery itself is an excellent parallel to a spoilery event in Ivy’s life and while the Chosen One is revealed during the resolution of a case, it was more a MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a plot device in media used to forward the plot and is usually an all-powerful thing or person, but at the end of the day has very little meaning or use to the overall plot. It can be an example of lazy writing or it can be used to emphasize story elements. Some examples being: the rug from “the Big Lebowski,” the Necronomicon from “The Evil Dead,” Doug from “The Hangover,” the ring from the “Lord of the Rings,” etc. There is an excellent video essay by the YouTube channel Just Write that explains why MacGuffins can be useful or crutches for writers in movies and media. In Magic for Liars, I love how the Chosen One is treated as MacGuffin and it almost feels like a satirical take on how all the world’s problems rest on the shoulder of one stressed out teenage boy is just silly. The Chosen One as a MacGuffin plays into Gailey’s writing and further juxtaposes our expectations as readers.
When the murder mystery is finally solved, both Ivy is left without a lot of comfort in its resolution and is faced with the daunting reality of returning to real life. Rather than becoming depressed, Ivy chooses to focus on the possibilities of the future and seeks to make a very inspiring change in the end, but the reader is left on a cliffhanger. By the of the story the reader realizes everyone in this story is both lying and telling the truth, everyone is has been both cruel and kind to people in the story, and even motivations behind the murder were kind rather than malicious. For me, the biggest thing I took away from this story is when everything lives in a grey area, what matters most is your actions and how you treat other people.
In case it wasn’t evident, I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it! There were some melodramatic parts that came off a bit like a soap-opera, Ivy is a bit mopey at times and is a bit of a drunkard, and the magic can be a bit silly, but I didn’t mind those things too much and to me it lent my theory that this story was a bit of a satirical on magic school fantasy books.
Discussion & Next Month’s Book
You all seem to be likely the questions and the choice of book for the next review - thanks for all your comments and suggestions!
Did you read this book and did you see it as bit satirical? Is it just me? Did you interpret anything different?
Have you ever heard of a MacGuffin before? Do you have a favorite example of one - good or bad?
Do you have a favorite fantasy book?
Which of the following books would you rather review next month:
A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum: “In Russia, in the summer of 1914, as war with Germany looms and the Czar's army tightens its grip on the local Jewish community, Miri Abramov and her brilliant physicist brother, Vanya, are facing an impossible decision. Since their parents drowned fleeing to America, Miri and Vanya have been raised by their babushka, a famous matchmaker who has taught them to protect themselves at all costs: to fight, to kill if necessary, and always to have an escape plan. But now, with fierce, headstrong Miri on the verge of becoming one of Russia's only female surgeons, and Vanya hoping to solve the final puzzles of Einstein's elusive theory of relativity, can they bear to leave the homeland that has given them so much? Before they have time to make their choice, war is declared and Vanya goes missing, along with Miri's fiancé. Miri braves the firing squad to go looking for them both. As the eclipse that will change history darkens skies across Russia, not only the safety of Miri's own family but the future of science itself hangs in the balance. Grounded in real history -- and inspired by the solar eclipse of 1914 -- A Bend in the Stars offers a heartstopping account of modern science's greatest race amidst the chaos of World War I, and a love story as epic as the railways crossing Russia.”
Change Agent by Daniel Suarez: “In 2045 Kenneth Durand leads Interpol’s most effective team against genetic crime, hunting down black market labs that perform "vanity edits" on human embryos for a price. These illegal procedures augment embryos in ways that are rapidly accelerating human evolution—preying on human-trafficking victims to experiment and advance their technology. With the worlds of genetic crime and human trafficking converging, Durand and his fellow Interpol agents discover that one figure looms behind it all: Marcus Demang Wyckes, leader of a powerful and sophisticated cartel known as the Huli jing. But the Huli jing have identified Durand, too. After being forcibly dosed with a radical new change agent, Durand wakes from a coma weeks later to find he’s been genetically transformed into someone else—his most wanted suspect: Wyckes. Now a fugitive, pursued through the genetic underworld by his former colleagues and the police, Durand is determined to restore his original DNA by locating the source of the mysterious—and highly valuable—change agent. But Durand hasn’t anticipated just how difficult locating his enemy will be. With the technology to genetically edit the living, Wyckes and his Huli jing could be anyone and everyone—and they have plans to undermine identity itself.”
Modern Mindfulness: How to Be More Relaxed, Focused, and Kind While Living in a Fast, Digital, Always-On World by Rohan Gunatillake: “In Modern Mindfulness, Rohan Gunatillake argues that to lead more mindful, calm and happy lives, switching off is the last thing we need to do. Instead he gives readers ideas, principles, and techniques to bring awareness, composure, and kindness whatever they are doing. Filled with over sixty practical exercises, the author's mobile mindfulness approach gives the benefits of meditation to even the busiest of lives.”
Commenter Suggested Title: You Choose!