Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars is a magical noir in two ways: it’s magical in the sense of being addictive and transporting, and it’s also magical in the more straightforward sense, which is to say, it’s a noir in which most of the characters are, indeed, mages. Ivy Gamble, who has spent her life feeling inadequate compared to her magically-gifted sister, Tabitha, has turned into the hard-drinking, hard-living PI of the noir tradition–and, in keeping with predecessors like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Ivy lives in California, and all the action is set there.
A teacher at the magic school where Tabitha teaches has died under mysterious circumstances, and Ivy is brought in to investigate because she is both an outsider (non-magical herself) and an insider (aware, in part, of the workings of magic thanks to her sister). Gailey does an excellent job of imagining Osthorne Academy as both a place that is enchanting and other, and also deeply familiar: the graffiti is magic and might sting you, sure, but also these kids pass notes, join clubs, play sports, and generally behave like teenagers.
What Gailey does best is to play with Ivy’s own insecurity as a metanarrative technique: Ivy feels the need to invent a story in which her presence at Osthorne makes sense, and thus is always simultaneously narrating herself to others and to the reading audience, bringing about the novel’s own trick of magic existing both beyond our world and in it, and people constantly having to choose which world they will engage. But eventually, everyone’s fabrications collapse: not just Ivy’s, but those of the teenagers she’s investigating (including a mysterious Mean Girl and a boy who fancies himself a Chosen One) and also that of Ivy’s twin Tabitha. What’s left when those inventions crumble might either be more or less than what the characters were hoping for, and what they must do is choose how to move beyond into a newer, truer, and thus more uncertain future.
While the interpersonal relationships and desires are excellently drawn, the novel’s one shortcoming is perhaps its noir aspirations. The opening sequence leans beautifully into the genre trappings, but the campus narrative and the detective noir are difficult to balance, and ultimately Gailey favors the former for the bulk of the novel, returning only to the detective’s final disillusionment and fragile hope in the final twenty pages or so. As a longtime fan of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, I’d hoped for a bit more on that front–but I can’t be too disappointed. In a hazy, jet-lagged state, I curled up on the couch with my dog and consumed this novel in a day, won over by Ivy’s cynical but yearning narratorial voice. What Gailey has to say about loneliness and hope and healing lingers even after we leave the grounds of Osthorne behind.