When I first looked at When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey, I immediately put it down again. I was not in the mood for witches, teen girl drama or magic. But when I found it sometime later, I thought, oh why not? Not like I had to finish. Yet, I would go onto finish, even with misgivings.
There is a slow beginning to this teen novel. In fact, the whole pace of the story can be slow with a rushed and mostly incomplete, unsatisfying ending. The theme of not only accepting yourself and friends, but realizing you deserve those who love you in your life, has been done before. And even with teen, queer witches, I did not see anything fresh. Unless you count killing someone by having their penis explode.
There are several clichés throughout the book as our main characters are selfish teenagers, worried about the future, but not paying attention that life has consequences. There are several points I was not sure why they were there. Such as did we need the “Uncle Trevor” storyline? He is a friend of one of the girl’s mother and lives with the family. He seems to just be there to be a, “Girls, watch out for strange, good looking men trying to groom you” warning. And what about the hawks? First the six of them, obviously representing the six girls, then the one at the end, but frankly, so what? And what about the brother theme? It seemed like all the girls had brothers younger than them. And a couple of the girls are adopted, so that is an interesting piece of information I was not completely sure why it was there.
I could go on about Alexis, Roya, Iris, Paulie, Marcelina, and Maryam and the “bad stuff” of the book. Yet, I will focus on the part that kept me reading: their friendship. They truly have a bound that only girls who are best friends can have. Now, I am not sure if my best friends would help me dispose of a boy I killed while trying to have sex with him, but I know they would be there to support me, even maybe pool together money for bail. And the fact that there are consequences to their actions was refreshing. Yet, I still think Alexis did not get her fair share of “punishment” for being in the middle of manslaughter.
Alexis and the gang are relatable (even though we are not a witch, of color, have two dads, are Muslim, or have a police officer mother). I was Alexis in some ways short of the never having killed a boy by “blowing up his penis” (that you are aware of). (And yes, I was a amused by this factoid, as you probably are supposed to be.) We all were in many ways those teens with our hopes, dreams, loss of identity and trying to find something to hold to.
An interesting piece of the puzzle is that Gailey has heavy queer influences. I was surprised to see how the “norm” or “usual” of mostly straight characters and one or two gay characters was flipped. That is not a negative or positive, just an observation that does give an important difference to what we are “used to” for this aged 14 and up novel.