Review by Christopher G. Nuttall
I’ve always felt a little sorry for Petunia Dursley.
It may seem odd, given that Petunia is a horrible person with very few redeeming qualities, but she does have good reason. She was introduced to magic, but could not enter the magic world because of bad luck in the genetic draw; she was forced to watch her sister get opportunities she’d never enjoy; her parents do seem to have favoured her sister to some extent … anyone who grows up as the unfavoured sibling can and often will wind up twisted and curdled. Her sour grapes are quite understandable, as is her determination to seek a mundane life. And yet, Petunia was even denied the chance to escape the magic world entirely, as she was forced to serve as Harry’s unwilling caretaker … a role that put her and her family in danger. I can sympathise with her feelings without condoning her treatment of Harry.
Magic for Liars sets out to deconstruct such a relationship.
Ivy Gamble had a very similar upbringing to Petunia. Her sister – Tabitha – has magic. Ivy has none. The sisters are estranged because Ivy resented Tabitha’s magic, her pranks, her absence and, worst of all, her seeming reluctance to aid their mother when she died of cancer. Ivy has spent most of her life lying to herself, insisting she didn’t want to be magic, until her career as a private detective leads Tabitha’s former headteacher to hire her to solve a murder mystery. A teacher has died under suspicious circumstances at the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where Tabitha is currently working. Ivy finds herself entering her sister’s world for the first time.
It doesn’t go well, although not quite for the reasons you might expect. The story focuses more on Ivy’s development, and how she handles the temptation to pretend to be magic, than it does on solving the mystery. Ivy finds that wizarding school isn’t that different to mundane school; there are jocks and mean girls and other unpleasantness that exists with and without magic. The majority of the problems facing both staff and students are quite typical, much to her disappointment. There is a rumoured ‘chosen one’ but this is not a major part of the book (although it does provide a valuable clue). The mystery is not that hard to solve, although – I think – for the wrong reasons.
Ivy herself is not entirely a reliable narrator. Her bitterness flows through the early sections of the book and only starts to clear as she realises the problems with magic school. Sure, the magic is impossible to put into words, but the students and staff are very human. They have the same problems as everyone else, which allows her – she’s good at reading people – to put the pieces together. She’s both helped and hampered by her lack of knowledge. On one hand, she’s able to realise what happened because she doesn’t know it’s supposed to be impossible; on the other, she makes a string of blunders because she lacks background knowledge. She’s something of a liar to herself and others, nearly destroying a growing love affair because she’s pretending to be a witch.
Her relationship with her sister veers from side to side. She has good reason for resentment, not helped by her sister engaging in pranks as a little girl. Tabitha admits this when they meet again as adults. There’s more than a hint of reality here in that something that might appear funny to one person is anything but to another. It also helps her to realise just what actually happened, in that the ‘murder’ was really a tragic accident. It isn’t really clear, at the end, how their relationship is going to work out.
Overall, Magic for Liars is something of a mixed bag. The school manages to be both extraordinary and mundane – at least, seen through Ivy’s eyes – and comes across as very real. On the other hand, a murder mystery is supposed to be focused on the murder and figuring out how the trick was done, not on the main character’s personal development. Ivy spends an awful lot of time feeling sorry for herself, rather than doing her job. There are also a handful of timing issues I missed the first time around, but spotted during the second read. There are a handful of issues – from open discussion of teenage sexuality and shades of pointless wokeness to a gruesome discussion of an illicit abortion – that may cause some readers to back away. And there are a lot of details that are never fully explored.
As fantasy detective fiction, it has its weaknesses. As a story of an outsider entering a very alien world, it is a lot stronger. I give it three stars out of five.
Author’s Website – http://www.sarahgailey.com/