When Sylvia Capley, the Health instructor at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, is found in the school library bisected from head to toe, cleanly down the middle, the National Mage Investigative Service (NMIS) concludes that her death was an accident, a spell gone wrong. The Headmaster of the school doesn’t agree with their conclusions and reaches out to Ivy Gamble, a bay area Private Investigator who specializes in small time cases, insurance fraud and cheating spouses. But as the twin sister of Osthorne’s Theoretical Magic teacher, she is an outsider who is aware of the magical community with the right skill set to solve a mystery. Estranged from her sister, Tabitha, since their mother’s death and resentful of being left behind when Tabitha was swept away into the magical world, Ivy has little interest in the case. But the chance to work on, and potentially solve, an actual murder case is too tempting to refuse!
Suddenly, Ivy finds herself at Osthorne Academy. Being the sister of a member of the faculty, everyone assumes that she has magical abilities as well. (And who is Ivy to correct them?) But this is far from an open and shut case. From the start there are multiple suspects among the staff, faculty and, especially the students. While Ivy cannot perform magic, she may be the only person who can uncover the truth about how Sylvia Capley died.
In her debut novel, Sarah Gailey, author of 2017’s pair of “man eating hippo mayhem” novellas River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, mashes up elements of several disparate genres. Magic for Liars is part noir-mystery, part urban fantasy, part Harry Potter and part Mean Girls and the result is, to pardon the phrase, magical!
Gailey has all of the necessary characters to populate the school: from the hunky Physical Magic instructor that may, or may not, be flirting with Ivy; to the too good to be true and too wise and powerful to be here school secretary; to the “queen bee” popular girl that illicits both awe and fear from her fellow students; to the student who is convinced that he is the “Chosen One” and the fulfillment of an as yet unfulfilled prophecy. Each is a potential suspect for Ivy. Searching for the truth, while maintaining her own fiction, makes solving the case doubly difficult for Ivy.
While the mystery of who killed the Health teacher propels the story forward, Gailey’s true focus is Ivy. A hard-drinking loner, in the tradition of classic private investigators, Ivy claims repeatedly that “My job is to pursue the truth." Her real goal, however, even if she doesn’t realize it herself, is to overcome the teenage trauma she suffered when her twin sister was told she was magical and welcomed into another world. As Ivy investigates the crime, she inhabits a world that she has simultaneously dreamt of and hated with a passion. Coupled with the fact that Ivy had to care for her mother, who was dying of cancer, while Tabitha was learning the ways of the magical community, means that this case gives her the unique opportunity to experience the life she feels she was denied. She is also searching for chances to grant and receive the forgiveness and acceptance that she knows deep down is missing in her life.
The world into which Gailey provides a glimpse is complex and interesting. The magic portrayed is a bit more like science than in most urban fantasies, but it still has a “wow” factor (especially in the revelation of how Capley died). And Gailey has populated the school where that magic is taught with real teenagers, who are obsessed with sex, bodily functions, popularity and attempting to deal with their own self-doubt. This is NOT Hogwarts!
Magic For Liars is both a wonderful whodunit and a reminder that High School, even one where magic is at the center of the curriculum, is usually a traumatic experience for all involved, and it is one from which we may never fully recover.