Title: Magic for Liars

Publisher: Tom Doherty

Author: Sarah Gailey

Pages: 352pp

Price: $17.99 (hardcover) / $9.99 (ebook)

Ivy Gamble is a private detective in San Francisco. After fourteen years on the job, she knows everything there is to know about fraudulent insurance claims, embezzling bosses, and cheating spouses. But then a mage appears in her office, a mage who wants to hire Ivy to solve a murder. And suddenly, painfully, Ivy is reminded of everything she doesn’t have and of everything she has lost: her mother to cancer, her father to grief, herself to anger, and her sister to magic itself. Perhaps solving this murder, a small part of Ivy hopes, will finally heal the rift between herself and her sister after so many years and so many lies ….

Magic for Liars kept popping up on recommendation lists, but I avoided buying it due to the price. When it suddenly went on sale, I snatched it up immediately — and I am sorry that it took me this long to read it.

Magic for Liars is a murder mystery, but also so much more. It’s a family drama and a coming of age tale. It’s a feminist call to arms and an exploration of human relationships, and how they have the power to simultaneously uplift us and destroy us. It is a quest for truth narrated by a liar.

Because Ivy Gamble is a liar, and most of all she lies to herself. Her favorite mantra is It’s fine, I’m fine, it’s all fine. She says it over and over and over again, as so many of us do when we’re drowning in anger and grief and just trying to get through the day. Having Ivy narrate the story creates a curious, pervasive tension. Just how reliable is she?

Magic for Liars takes many of the tropes so common to contemporary fantasy and mystery, and turns them on their head; or at least twists them around sufficiently that the reader is forced to look at them from a different angle. The magic school, for example, and the prophesied Chosen One. Osthorne Academy is hidden away in a fold of space in the hills above Oakland. It is green and beautiful and inviting. But, as Ivy discovers, so much of it is just like mundane, non-magical school. When she sees how the students are “wasting” their magic on petty pranks and bullying, Ivy is appalled and angry; they have the power of the universe at their fingertips, and this is what they do with it? And that Chosen One? Yeah. Nobody takes the prophesy seriously except for the student who is convinced that he is the Chosen One.

And that magic that Ivy claims not to covet and envy? The language that Gailey uses to describe it is poetic; metaphors and textures and scents all layered and woven together to create a sense of wonder, but also of distance and impossibility. Glass lighting. The blood-as-sand approach. Sponge-made-of-slowly-growing-roots perspective. Fists-of-sand and clouds-in-water. To a mage, these all make perfect sense. To a mundane human — like Ivy, like the reader — they are beautiful and meaningless.

And then there is the small matter of the murder, and that a murderer is loose on campus, and someone is sending Ivy anonymous texts, and, oh right, that manic diary she found hiding in a pocket of shadows ….

Magic for Liars is an excellent novel. I hesitate to label it as a paranormal mystery, because there is just so much going on in its pages. I was hooked from the start, and I was sorry when it came to an end. I highly doubt that Gailey will ever return to this fictional universe; I guess that I will just have to console myself by reading her other books.

Highly recommended to fans of Wendy Roberts’ Bodies of Evidence series, The Brimstone Files by Jason Ridler, Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series, and Dan Willis’ Arcane Casebook series.

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]