Murder, Magic, and Sibling Rivalry: A Review of Sarah Gailley’s Magic for Liars

Even after everything—even with everything that was still between us, that would probably always be between us—she was my sister. I was born reaching for her.

It’s one of the more highly anticipated fantasy offerings of 2019, so naturally, I had my eyeballs all over it as soon as it came out. There had been many comparisons made between Magic for Liars and magical school fantasy stories like the Harry Potter books, or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (itself an American deconstruction of the magical boarding school subgenre), and I must say they were not unjustifiably made. Gailey’s Osthorne Academy is a high school facsimile of Grossman’s Brakebills, in that it hews more to the gritty realism of how an actual institute filled with hormonal, rebellious young people would appear. Hogwarts, for all its charms, remained unrealistically wholesome in the entire series given its roots in children’s literature.

While Lev Grossman’s work asked the question: “What if Hogwarts is real and you went there?” Gailey’s standalone offering asks “What if Hogwarts is real and you still don’t get to go?” Almost unkindly, its hand reaches out of the pages to slap the faces of grownup Potterheads who are still waiting for their Hogwarts letter to arrive. To sum up Magic for Liars, it’s the story of Petunia Dursley (née Evans) if she never married Vernon, and became an alcoholic private eye.

The story follows Petunia Ivy Gamble who was commissioned by the magical school where her sister studied and later taught at to investigate a gruesome and bizarre death that occurred in the library. While the central mystery is interesting and ties in intimately with the emotional journey of our protagonist, what I find more interesting is the book’s examination of Ivy’s psyche, and what it did to her growing up knowing that there is a world of potential and privilege that admitted her sister but was brutally denied to her. I love how it portrays the complicated, and resentful relationship Ivy has with her sister—and I looked forward, as I was reading it, to how that resolved itself.

The mystery itself is suitably complicated (even if its solution is a little obvious) and it was a quick read for me. What I wish Ms Gailey had done was to offer a greater level of world-building to make her magical world more believable. Yes, there is this magical school and there are others like it in the country; yes, there is a Chosen One prophecy; and yes there is apparently some kind of bureaucratic government that is put in charge of the magical community but they were all rather perfunctory and vanilla in their portrayals. Perhaps it was the intention of the author to strip such devices of their whimsy, and to demonstrate how beige they would be if they really existed, but I, alas, hungered for more. Grossman did a far better job in creating his magical underground subculture(s) as they would exist alongside us Muggles, even with his first book.

Still in a crowded post-Potter fantasy fiction world, this book is still worth a read if you ask me.

Rating: 3.5/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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