It’s unclear if anyone has ever attended a wizarding school without witnessing at least one gruesome murder before graduation. It matters not the general size, location, or demeanor of the school in question—somebody’s definitely meeting their demise while the rest of the school suffers through their potions and divination work.
This is certainly the case for the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, the setting of Sarah Gailey’s debut novel, Magic for Liars. Osthorne sits pleasantly in the middle of the magic-school spectrum, halfway between the moodiness of Brakebills and the (deadly) wonderment of Hogwarts. And yet, this fantasy whodunit kicks off its twisty narrative with the discovery of an unusual, and unusually grisly death in the school library. A teacher is dead. The only witnesses: a student, and all the whispering tomes of the library’s forbidden section.
Enter Ivy Gamble, the mostly functioning private eye who’s summoned to investigate her first murder case by Osthorne’s headmaster. The catch? Ivy’s estranged twin sister, Tabitha, is a faculty member.
Ivy and Tabitha’s relationship fractured in adolescence, as Tabitha left for her magical studies and Ivy was left behind in Muggle world even as their family endured its darkest moments, including her mother’s slow battle against a brutal cancer. Even against the backdrop of a bisected body on school property, it’s the tense, wary, but yearning dynamic between Ivy and Tabitha that is the through-line for this compulsively readable novel.
Yes, there is a mystery to solve—potentially, even, a killer to out. But what Gailey manages most masterfully is the channeling of the raw emotions that overwhelm Ivy as she steps into her sister’s world, one she’s spurned actively for years, and not only because it represents the path not taken. Cracks appear in her hardened shell as she nurtures the idea of a real relationship with her sister, of a potential relationship with dreamy Osthorne teacher Rahul, of life in a magical world a different Ivy—to her, a better Ivy—was meant to inhabit.
As she picks at these emotional scars and undertakes an investigation that makes her nervous all on its own, Ivy is orbited by an involving cast of disaffected magic teens, whose natural adolescent battles heighten the drama surrounding the death of one of their teachers. Hovering within the matrix of possible suspects are mean-girl Alexandria DeCambray and her brother, Dylan, who’s convinced he’s the fulfillment of a Chosen One prophecy. (Of course there’s a Chosen One prophecy. There always is. It’s wizarding school.)
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The mixture of classic high-school drama and supernaturally high stakes is disorienting for Ivy, as well as a little intoxicating. Her urge to fit in—to play pretend—takes the better of her with the unexpected flirtations from Rahul. How could he ever be attracted to plain ol’ non-magical Ivy? At the same time, she’s repulsed by the mundane ways the high-schoolers around her seem to fritter away their gifts, from bullying their peers with unremovable graffiti to changing their hair color. It’s a contrast that mirrors the best aspects of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, showing each of us a truer picture of how we’d react in the same situation—a barer look at a world that’s more than just grand banquets and broomstick joyrides.
As Ivy closes in on the truth behind the story’s central death, she uncovers tangential truths that weight just as heavy. Most importantly, she confronts the reality of her feelings toward her sister, toward her past, and toward the wider world she’s kept at arm’s length for so long. Imagine reading the Harry Potter series through the eyes of a young Petunia Dursley, before the bitterness overtook her—before tragedy robbed her of any chance at closure.
Ivy Gamble may not be magic herself, but she casts a spell all the same—and so does Gailey, who bottles up all the imagination and verve evident in their American Hippo novellas and pours it into a novel you’ll want to down in a sitting or two, like one of the many stiff drinks Ivy favors throughout.