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Magic for Liars

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fantasy (2019)
Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magical. She is perfectly happy with her life. She has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It's a great life and she doesn't wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha.

But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.

336 pages, Kindle Edition

First published June 4, 2019

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,410 reviews
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews150k followers
February 18, 2021
Ivy Gamble is not magic.

She will not be whisked away to train in a magician’s school where she will have all the glory her teeth can snatch. She is not the Chosen One, standing over her peers like a towering peak—all the possibilities of life, death, and magic spinning in her head. Instead, she will end up dragging her hopes behind her like a chastised child dragging her stuffed bear thumping up the stairs. Her life will settle into a humdrum rhythm, and some forty years later, she will be scraping a meager existence as a private investigator, anchored by the comforting weight of predictability—ordinary and scathingly unmagical.

Ivy had expended so much passion on this impossible dream, only to stand helpless as it was granted to others. Others like her twin sister of whom all she had left were memories, each as fragile as a wisp of smoke—unlike her resentment, for that had always been deep and ingrained in a way that Ivy tried to keep buried. But when Ivy is personally sought by the headmaster of the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages—where her sister works—to investigate a grisly murder, the opportunity is like food offered to a stomach left empty for too many days.

Ivy feels a surge of longing rising in her like a swell just at the thought of crossing the threshold into the Academy—that treacherous, involuntary pull—and, not for the first time, it flitted through her mind how simple it would be if this were her life. But it’s quickly dampened by a lurch of loss and nostalgia for something that has never been hers.

No, Ivy Gamble is not magic, but she’s an investigator—and a damn good one.

Rather than coasting on a well-worn narrative, in their novel Magic for Liars, author Sarah Gailey deviates refreshingly from the expected.

The novel’s big triumph lies in the manner in which it celebrates, overhauls, and pokes gentle fun at the “Chosen One” archetype, while also being an insightful conversation with genre staples and conventions. In fact, the book's considerable charm hinges on its ability to work on two levels: Gailey attempts to subvert the genre, but they also revel in it, rolling around in fantasy tropes like a kitten in catnip.

The plot is simple, and for all its immersion in magic, the novel doesn't fuss over the more magical aspects of its setting. The world of mages leaves plenty to explore, and because Ivy’s grasp of magic and its trappings is tenuous at best, her narrative often asks more questions than it answers. And there are only enough bread crumbs to propel the plot, to unveil the fears, hurts, and passions of the characters, to turn over the rocks and expose the wriggling secrets to the light.

There are plenty of nuances to that simplicity, though.

What makes the book most exciting—and worth galvanizing my will to persevere through the often-tepid pacing and some repetitive sections—is the way the author uses their toolbox of fantasy tropes selectively, looks at them with clinical eyes, exposing them, facing them, and effectively subverting them, all while deftly constructing an intriguing backdrop that's equally outlandish and startingly ubiquitous.

When the gloss and mystery of newness, which had kept our narrator Ivy Gamble from seeing the Academy—and magic—with much objectivity wears off, we discover—alongside Ivy—that the reality is far more interesting than any idealized version could possibly be: Osthorne Academy for Young Mages is not unlike any other high school. Students, luxuriant in their own skills, extend their entertainment by spinning spells—not to carry out as tedious a task as assigned work, but to draw penis-shaped clouds, write enchanted love letters, relieve menstrual cramps and fuck each other without protection. It’s clear we’re in the hands of a playful writer, and, it’s what makes for the best bit in the book. Even Ivy’s resentment begins to flake away at the coltish youth inhabiting the academy, and like her, I soon forgot what I minded, utterly absorbed by this world's abundant charm.

Still, Gailey never forgets that Magic for Liars is a thriller at its pounding heart, and the specter of the crime hangs hauntingly over everything. But driven as it may be by mystery and unanswered questions, the novel is, ultimately, about family, and the withered ties that bind siblings, even through years of separation. Although the author seems somewhat uncomfortable, in her rushed final act, with wrapping up the book, the ultimate reveal still jarred me. It was also, modestly, quietly profound. When it was all said and done, my mind was bristling out like needles and I was left feeling unsure how to feel about the whole thing.

Every detective story needs a detective, and Magic for Liar’s is, of course, Ivy Gamble.

Resentful, flawlessly petty and occasionally morally unconcerned, Ivy Gamble is not easy to embrace, but nonetheless, her narrative reflects a piercing intelligence and a passion that has never been given a chance to flourish. Ivy operates according to a personal code born of ocean-deep loneliness and a hunger for a little chaos and reckless danger to cope with the emptiness. By the end, however, she loses some of her sharp edges, melted away to smooth curves and my heart thawed for her. Ivy must decide the rules of her life and the kind of womanhood that she's going to make for herself. She has measured her worth by her lack of magic for so long but there is no set way to be the kind of person that she wants to be, and Ivy lets the realization fill her.

All quibbles aside, Magic for Liars is a lovely, assured novel and I'm glad I picked it up!

If you liked this review please consider leaving me a tip on ko-fi !

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Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
525 reviews56.6k followers
December 19, 2019
(2.75) Murder mystery in a magical school? Sounds right up my alley!

Sadly I ended up being a bit bored. The story simply wasn't very memorable.
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,079 reviews17.2k followers
December 8, 2020
Magic for Liars follows private investigator Ivy Gamble as she investigates a death in the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, the workplace of her sister and a location she has envied for years. While she’s living a life she thinks of as simple, her sister is a famous and talented teacher. It is a murder mystery wrapped up in an interesting commentary on chosen one tropes and sibling rivalry, and it had me engrossed from start to finish.

The thing I find the most entertaining about this book, in a nutshell, is how it plays with established fantasy tropes. Ivy is a Petunia-Dursley type character, in that she is the sister to a girl with magic, who was the favorite of the family. I really enjoyed how that dynamic was explored and tackled, especially as it is mirrored by others. The sibling dynamic, actually, is a huge focus of this book. The relationship between her and Tabitha reaches a level of complexity I was not expecting. There is a chosen one, too, and his sister, whose relationship with him is a neat parallel to our two sisters. As the book progresses, Ivy has to ask herself: is her sister’s world really quite as blissful as she thinks?

Ivy is a mess of character whose sense of self is in heavy disrepair, much as she’d like not to admit it. She’s been given the chance to be on equal with her sister, and even to be a different person, and she desperately wants this. Several reviewers on this page seem to have found her whiny, which I frankly do not agree with. Her romantic subplot with Rahul is not so much a romance as a part of her character arc; a chance for her to grow and learn.

It seems like several reviewers on this page really didn’t vibe with the writing style here, which is interesting to me, because I really really did. I struggled to put this one down. (If you’ve read this definitely let me know how you felt, as I’m interested by it being polarizing!) I also liked elements of the setting; the opening being set in the Bay Area was fun.

The ending of Magic for Liars was, in all honesty, not what I expected; I was expecting some kind of heart-thrilling reveal, some kind of ridiculous plot twist, and what I got was a sort of faster-paced reveal that focused more on the why than on the who. But I felt this worked for the book. The ending left me thinking, doubting, wondering, unsatisfied but not upset with the book. (I think the original blurb’s comparison to Tana French, whose books I have now read, is warranted.)

TW: body horror, death from cancer,

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Profile Image for The Captain.
1,053 reviews349 followers
June 4, 2019
Ahoy there me mateys!  I received this fantasy eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  So here be me honest musings . . .

I was excited to read this full-length novel from the author who brought us hippo cowboys.  This is a murder mystery set in a magical school.  Ivy is a professional PI that spends her time investigating cheaters and such.  She has always been upset that her twin sister got the magic and glory and she got the grit and mundane.  But this murder mystery could be the step that takes her to the next level.  Unfortunately this was a book that had problems and ended up being highly unsatisfactory.

The positive things that made me finish the book were:

- I loved the hippo books so much for their characters and world-building that I gave the author the benefit of the doubt.
- It had a very nice set-up.  I was highly engaged by the premise.  I expected the overall journey to be worth it.
- I liked some of the practical magic on display.  I particularly liked how healing magic worked.
- I enjoyed the characters Rahul and Mrs. Webb.
- There is good use of romantic consent in this book.
- There is some nice diversity in the book.

While those things keep me reading, the world-building and plot made it harder and harder to finish the book.  Unfortunately, there were major issues that made this an unlikable read for me.

- The Main Character - Ivy is a woe-is-me drunk who makes bad choices all the time.  The sympathy from the beginning is destroyed by her desperate and slightly pathetic choices.  She makes ridiculous decisions and then tries to justify how they work within the investigation.  She also uses the investigation as an attempt to play-act her life as a magician.  Someone was murdered and she wants to play make-believe.  It was odd.

- The Other Characters - I didn't really love any of the characters besides Rahul and Mrs. Webb.  And those two weren't particularly unique despite their enjoyability.  After the hippo books, I frankly expected more.

- The  Magic - I liked the practical, if silly, uses for some of the magic (like all the magic of Rahul) but how it works is never actually explained.  Also there is no real indication of what adults do with their magic other than teach.  Why do the magicians hide it from the world?  Is it used for the greater good ever?  It seems from this book that magic seems to be used for things like protecting the coffee machine from students and for the students to pass notes to each other.  I wanted more insight into the rules of magic and the uses that were only hinted at.

- The World-Building - I feel like neither Ivy's life in the "real" world or the school are truly set up as actual places.  They felt kinda like a two-dimensional film set only without the visual clues.  The suggestion of parts taking place in Oakland or Sunol seemed irrelevant to the story.

- The Chosen One trope - This felt shoe-horned in.  There is never a good explanation of what being the Chosen One actually means or what the consequences are going to be.

- The Romance - While Rahul was me favourite character, the romance subplot stalled the action and was pointless.  It did not need to exist at all.

- The Murder-Mystery - I knew immediately who-dun-it so it came down to wanting to know the whys and wherefores.  And I found those to be lackluster and stupid.  I get why the characters made those emotional choices but frankly didn't care.  It just all seemed so melodramatic and pointless for no reason.  And how the solution was exposed was silly.

- The Ending - One of the worst endings ever.  Ivy made two horrible and ridiculous choices.  The author decided to leave the ramifications of the case and the effects on the students and staff are not discussed.  The book ends in such an odd fashion that I thought there might another book coming.  Nope.  This be a standalone.

The author includes lots of dark topics in this book and then never explores any of the actual life consequences of such choices.  She ends the book with no closure or realistic ramifications.  Instead the entire plot felt more like a facade for Ivy to realize that a) her problem is herself; and b) for her to fall in lust.  Shame because I wanted to like this one.  Unfortunately it must walk the plank!  Arrrr!

So lastly . . .

Thank you Macmillian-Tor/Forge!
Profile Image for Christina Loeffler.
135 reviews17.4k followers
November 11, 2019
2, how did a Veronica Mars/Harry Potter mash up end up flopping so hard stars!

Full review featured on my blog Recipe and a Read!

Ivy and Tabitha Gamble are twins. They share parents, DNA, a home and a childhood full of beautiful, loving and happy memories. What they don’t share, is magic. Tabitha (Tabby), Ivy’s twin sister is gifted with powers beyond either of their imaginations and upon their inception Tabby is whisked away to a modern day Hogwarts and eventually begins teaching Theoretical Magic at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages. While Tabitha is away at school learning how to make her skin more luminous, change the dreary color of her hair and make plants grow in the dead of winter; Ivy is at home watching her family fall apart. Her mother is dying of cancer and her father is dying from a broken heart and there’s nothing Ivy can do. She isn’t magical, she’s just a normal girl watching her normal mother wither away in front of her.

Well, I wouldn’t have run my fingers across the letters then, either. I probably wouldn’t have given them a second glance. I’ve never been good at recognizing what moments are important. What things I should hang on to while I’ve got them.

Ivy may not be magic, but what she is, is a damn good Private Investigator whose carved out a life of her own from the rubble her sister left behind. Color Ivy surprised when after locking her door behind her she receives an unexpected visitor who knows more about her than she should. Headmaster Torres from Osthorne is here to solicit the help of Ivy, a PI with at least a minor understanding of the magical goings-on at the Academy. A beloved teacher has been found in the library, sliced clean in half and the investigative team has deemed it a spell gone wrong instead of what Torres knows it clearly to be: a murder. So begins Ivy’s foray into a magical world that’s always been just beyond her reach. As she entrenches herself in her estranged sisters life and the world of spells and magical teenagers she finds a whole lot more than she bargained for.

She smiled past the bloodstains on the carpet. “She treated everyone like a person. It’s rarer than you’d think.” She drew a breath. “Her body was there, and there.” Torres indicated each of the butterfly wings of the stain.

What a synopsis though, right!? When I saw this baby was releasing this year I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I was envisioning the perfect blend of an adult Harry Potter mashed up with the best PI around, Veronica Mars. However, what I got was something that left me sorely disappointed. I will say that Gailey really deviated from the norm here and the nuance of poking fun at the “chosen one” trope isn’t lost on me. While the idea here I think is top notch, the execution left me wanting more for almost the entirety of the read.

I don’t have to love all the characters of a book to love the book itself. However, Ivy took the whining MC trope to an entirely new level that made me not only dislike her, but not want to spend any time with her either. That’s a bad place to be when it’s the only POV you’ve got. I appreciated the difficulty of what it must be like to live in a world where you know magic exists but you’re decidedly not magic and your sister gets the life you’ve always dreamed of. I can’t even say that I wouldn’t be exactly the same if I were in her shoes. However, when I’m reading I want the suspension of reality a bit. While you do have to suspend reality because…you know, magic; I would’ve loved to have seen more depth and dimension to Ivy. She felt very one-dimensional to me and her inner monologue of “poor me, I’m not magic” grew tired as the pages wore on.

An ache gripped my chest, sudden and overwhelming. That’s my sister. 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.

I appreciated the complexity of Ivy’s relationship with her sister and the originality of the idea behind the plot. However, in the end I felt consistent disappointment and it was a bit of a chore to keep going. The writing, at times, was a bit much and the amount of similes used was astounding. The plot genuinely did not pick up past much of Ivy wallowing in self-pity for being ordinary until the last 30 or so pages. The final “twist” if you can call it that, was yet another moment where I found myself again, wanting more from the characters and more from the story overall. I’m not saying this book isn’t for anyone, but it definitely wasn’t for me.
Profile Image for Sonja Arlow.
1,063 reviews7 followers
June 24, 2019
2.5 stars

What a bipolar reading experience this was.

Initially I was doubtful that a story set in a magic school would interest me but once I started I REALLY enjoyed it…… until I didn’t.

It’s such a pity that Ivy turned out to kill my joy with her incessant whining and insecurities about her inability to do magic. The author repeated this fact one too many times for my liking.

What I do think was done well is the way the complex relationship between Ivy and her twin sister Tabitha was portrayed.

The mystery itself was a little light in the pants and to be honest I think Ivy was not the best of detectives to start with. She basically stumbled upon clues rather than deduct them from solid investigative efforts.

This was not a bad read but not on that will leave any lasting impression on me.

I was hoping that this would be a great substitute for my beloved Dresden books but alas it was not to be.
Profile Image for Meredith B.  (readingwithmere).
231 reviews158 followers
June 3, 2019
4 stars!

It might take a little while to get there, but I'll tell you everything, and I'll tell you the truth. As best I can. I used to lie, but when I tell you the story, you'll understand why I had to lie. You'll understand that I didn't have a choice. I just wanted to do my job.


This was a fun read for me! 1. I got to read something that's completely out of my comfort zone - sci-fi and fantasy (with a bit of mystery) 2. I got to buddy read this with my husband!

Ivy is a detective but right now the extent of her work is only being hired to find out if someone's spouse is cheating on them. Ivy is like any normal person and she has a family but her sister is a little different than yours and mine. Ivy's sister Tabitha was born with magic powers and is able to make things happen with spells, etc.

One day, Ivy gets called in on a special case and it just so happens to be a murder at her sister's school who she hasn't seen in many years. She sets up to move there, and into the dead person's apartment no less, and has to stay on campus until she figures out what happened. She interviews students, staff and even tries to reconcile a bit with her sister. Through her interviews she starts to put the puzzle pieces together. She both is and isn't shocked at all the parties involved in the end but the reasoning behind it really hits home...

I gave this book a 4 star rating and my husband gave it a 3.5 star rating. We both enjoyed multiple aspects of this story such as the detective storyline and the sister relationship that somewhat evolved during the story. I also enjoyed the family story that came about within this book. The author touches on the family story throughout the book and you can see how Ivy and Tabitha's actions today translate to what has happened to them in the past.

I'm glad I took the leap and decided to read something different from what I normally do again. I think the magic aspects of this book were still a little too outside the box for my liking (again just personal preference) but I actually came to enjoy most of the story and the meaning behind it while also opening my imagination.

This was a great debut by Sarah Gailey and if this sounds like something you'd enjoy then definitely pick it up! It releases June 4th!

Thanks to Tor Books for my ARC and finished copies of this book.
Profile Image for Virginie Roy.
Author 1 book586 followers
July 17, 2020
This book didn't work well for me... I wasn't really interested by what was going on.

It was very predictable, but I wanted to finish it just in case, you know? In case something incredible would happen and the ending would satisfy me.

The story lacked the magic feeling I was looking for. I skipped the parts where the spells were explained, I thought it was too complicated and it didn't mean anything to me.

On the positive side, I appreciated reading about Ivy's relationships with her sister and with the other character that I won't name ;) She made me think of Izzy Spellman in the series written by Lisa Lutz, that I really liked.

The ending was okay, but I had guessed two important things (I don't think I'm that good a detective... the hints were pretty obvious).

In the end, I recommend this book if you liked The Magicians... That's what is written on the cover, and since I didn't like this one either (didn't finish it, in fact), maybe it's a good advice haha!
Profile Image for Bee.
83 reviews71 followers
June 23, 2019
Magic for Liars isn't what I expected it to be. I had impressions from other early readers that it would be along the lines of a murder-mystery in Hogwarts, which turned out to be less-than-accurate. Instead, Magic for Liars is about the lies we tell ourselves, and each other. It is about the disastrous things that result from these lies, no matter how well-meaning they were, or how innocent they seemed. 

It begins with the gruesome death of a staff member at The Osthorne Academy for Young Mages. After an investigation by the authorities concludes the death a suicide, the heads of the Academy are unsatisfied. Enter Ivy Gamble, PI. Ivy isn't like her sister- she isn't magic and she doesn't want to be. Though she spends most of her days following cheating spouses or investigating insurance fraud, she is reluctantly convinced (namely, by a large sum of cash) to re-investigate the death at Osthorne.

Ivy Gamble is a hot mess and an absolutely fascinating character. She is morally grey from head to toe and maybe a little bit out of her depth, but at her core intelligent and trying her best. The story unfolds entirely from her perspective as she sleuths around Osthorne, allowing herself to slip in to Tabitha's world. There is some time given to the magic in this world as Ivy peeks into classroom and gets to know staff,  but there isn't a deep dive into its limits and intricacies. This seemed to be a sticking point for some readers, but I never found myself bothered by it. The narrator of this story is non-magical, so it felt right that we only had topical glances at the various subjects via Ivy's encounters with them.  Their relationships and interactions drive this plot forward without losing any of the atmospheric tension you'd hope for in a good mystery. It beckons you forward page after page and doesn't let go until the very end. I found myself hanging on as I came approached to the conclusion thinking there was no way it was possible, skimming through previous pages making sure I hadn't misread the the final discoveries because I couldn't fathom how it could be. This book doesn't give you that feeling of satisfaction that comes at the end of a typical mystery novel: the evil-doer unmasked, justice is served, our grizzled protagonist reflects with contentment on another case solved. No, the end of Magic for Liars is fucking devastating. It is devastating and brilliant.

While this book sits firmly in both the realms of mystery and fantasy, it subverts both. The evil in this book does not manifest in the form of a sadistic killer, nor is it a dragon to be slain. Ivy Gamble is not our hero, nor is this the story of her redemption. She arrives at Osthorne Academy as a deeply flawed person, and eventually departs in similar form. We don't get to see her redemption. The choices she makes throughout her investigation are not always good, sometimes even amoral, and some of them will even make you uncomfortable. You might even see a little of yourself in their choices. 

I received a copy of Magic for Liars from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

P.S. - Sarah Gailey wrote a piece over on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog called "What Makes a Story Queer?" They use Magic for Liars as a jumping off point for this discussion and it's wonderful. Read it here.
Profile Image for Darcia Helle.
Author 30 books690 followers
June 4, 2019
I love the combination of magic with a PI and a murder case, so I was looking forward to reading this book. Unfortunately, I didn't love the book as much as I love the concept.

I have low tolerance for characters (and people) who wallow in self-pity. Ivy, the PI and narrator of this story, is queen of the 'woe is me' category. Her whining is a constant throughout the story. I wanted to give her a shake and tell her to grow up, though with less polite wording.

I loved the way the magic was handled. This isn't your typical magic of fiction, but something more complex and intriguing. For the most part, we only see this on the periphery. I would've liked to be immersed in the magical world.

If you're familiar with the cartoon Scooby-Doo, then you have a good sense of the murder mystery aspect of the plot. Ivy did a whole lot of bumbling around. She'd fail to follow up on obvious clues, and she'd brush off things people said as unimportant. For the most part, she was too busy wallowing to follow the clues being dropped all around her. I found it maddening, particularly since I figured it out long before she began connecting the dots.

And, finally, the ending lacks closure. We find out the whodunit, but then nothing is actually done about the whodunit. Ivy's personal life, which was a major focus throughout, is also left up in the air. So if you prefer solid endings, you won't like this one.

The writing itself is good. This is an easy read that flows well. I just wanted more of some things, and a whole lot less of others.

*I received a review copy from the publisher, via BookishFirst.*
Profile Image for Celeste.
869 reviews2,307 followers
September 6, 2019
The cover and synopsis and title of the novel were all immediately intriguing to me. Magic for Liars is a murder mystery on a magical high school campus, told from the perspective of the nonmagical private eye who finds herself on the case. You can see why I was intrigued, right? Noir novels can be very hit or miss, but this one was definitely a hit. It was everything I was hoping for, and more than I was expecting.

Ivy Gamble is a wonderfully developed character. She comes across a bit as a down-on-her-luck gumshoe detective at the beginning of the book, but she grows and changes so much throughout the book. When she is approached to look into a mysterious death on the campus of a magic school, the campus where her magical twin sister teaches, no less, Ivy is incredibly conflicted. She has no real relationship with her sister and doesn’t want to encroach on her world, but the pay is too good for her starving coffers to pass up. Ivy suddenly finds herself trying to balance a rekindling relationship with her sister, a burgeoning romance with one of the school’s teachers, the teenage drama running wild in the hallways, the questionable death that brought her to the school in the first place… and lies. Lots and lots of lies.

The mystery elements of this novel were really fun, but my favorite aspect was the setting. I’m a sucker for any kind of school story, especially if that school is magical. What I loved so much about The Osthorne Academy for Young Mages is that it’s not Hogwarts. There’s nothing mystical about it. Osthorne is exactly like a real life preppy, private high school, but where magic is taught alongside your average subjects. I thought the lack of robes and moving stairways and haunted forests was incredibly refreshing, even though I adore all of those elements. I also really liked how scientific the magic was, and the medical implications that were discussed throughout. And the fact that our main character is an outsider looking in on this magical world was a wonderful change, as well. I enjoyed getting to see magic from the perspective of someone incapable of using it.

I really liked Magic for Liars. Is it a book that I’ll remember forever and add to my shelf of lifetime favorites? No. But it was a fun ride that I would have no problem recommending to others. It’s great for what it is, and well worth reading.

You can find this review and more at Novel Notions.
Profile Image for Joel.
550 reviews1,574 followers
March 1, 2019
Books that are billed as “like The Magicians” are never like The Magicians in the right ways for me, but this is both like The Magicians in that “magic is actually kind of weird and gross and real” way, and it’s a compelling whodunnit besides. The solution was perhaps a tad obvious, but the emotional weight with which the mystery is treated–it is deeply rooted in the characters’ past traumas and dysfunctions and insecurities–made that matter less. The narrative voice is arresting, and the noir atmosphere is well-handled. In short, a pretty darn good debut, and significantly better than the similarly pitched An Unkindness of Magicians.
Profile Image for Lisa Wolf.
1,591 reviews170 followers
June 2, 2019
Magic For Liars may be set at a school of magic, but we're on notice from the very first page that this is not THAT kind of school:
Now they were all downstairs at the welcome-back dinner, an all-staff-all-students meal that marked the end of the first week of classes. They'd joke there about house-elves and pumpkin juice -- or at least the freshmen would. By the time they were sophomores, that vein of humor was worn beyond use.

After a bloody murder at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages (located in the vicinity of Sunol, California -- less than an hour's drive from San Francisco or Oakland), private investigator Ivy Gamble is called in to help solve the case. Magical authorities have deemed it an accidental death due to a spell gone bad, but the school's headmaster thinks there's more to be discovered... and since Ivy is the non-magical twin sister of a professor at the school, she seems to be the right choice to lead the investigation.

The assignment at Osthorne is fraught with tension and high emotional stakes for Ivy. She and sister Tabitha have been estranged for years, really since Tabitha was selected to go to an elite magic school when they were teens. Their paths diverged sharply from that point onward, and the two have never managed to reconnect, especially in the aftermath of their mother's death while Tabitha was away at school.

Now arriving at Osthorne, Ivy sets out to solve the murder while also trying to understand who Tabitha is now, and who she herself might have been if she'd had magic too. Ivy's journey is painful to witness, as she drinks herself through her tumultuous feelings every night and lets herself become consumed by the mysterious death and the suspicious undercurrents at the school

I love Sarah Gailey's writing -- I loved it in the American Hippo books, and she's totally on point here as well, conveying the otherworldliness of the magical world while rooting it in a grim and grimy reality that has more than a shade of noir to it. What magical school doesn't have a library with weird and dangerous sections? Here at Osthorne, Ivy hears:
... the books murmuring to each other like a scandalized congregation of origami Presbyterians.

Isn't that delicious?

Some other choice bits:
Across the bay, San Francisco bled money like an unzipped artery.

.... and
The drive through the Sunol hills was as beautiful as the novocaine that comes before the drill.

Certain magic school tropes makes appearances too -- there's a Prophecy and a Chosen One, for starters, as well as the more mundane clique of popular girls who flutter around the central Mean Girl and all sorts of relationship drama, both appropriate and not.

The plot zooms along quickly, and sometimes reality can be a slippery thing. Ivy's investigations are often clouded by the magical elements around her, but even so, she applies her skills and street smarts to get to the shocking truth. The resolution is pitch-perfect, and even though I guessed at the outcome ahead of time, that did not detract at all from the impact and the shock when the answers are finally revealed.

Magic For Liars is, plain and simple, a terrific read. Don't miss it!

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley. Full review at Bookshelf Fantasies.
Profile Image for The Artisan Geek.
445 reviews7,233 followers
Read
July 17, 2020
24/4/20
Pretty good! I enjoyed the goriness of bodies being exploded, but the story didn't feel all that believable to me. Imagine going to Hogwarts as a muggle and people not knowing you didn't have an ounce of magic in you -- you wouldn't even be able to talk yourself out of your lack of knowledge...

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Profile Image for Fiona.
1,184 reviews215 followers
June 12, 2019
This time was going to be different. This time was going to be better. This time, I was going to be enough.

Like so many of us readers, Ivy Gamble never had the chance to go to magic school and experience a magical fix for everything wrong in her life. Unlike most of us, she's not really allowed to put the dream aside and move on with life - her twin sister does get that, from her teenage perspective, and when this story begins years later, she's now a hard drinking, hard living PI, who resolutely tells herself she never wanted that life anyway.

And of course, it's not long before that world comes knocking on her door - in the best of traditions, there's been a murder, and it doesn't take long before the shimmering promise of a perfect, magical, life is within Ivy's reach once more.

Of course, it's not that easy, life is messy no matter who you are, or which laws of physics you can temporarily suspend. But it's the way that Sarah Gailey deconstructs the dream that makes this such a great book - she's realistic but not uncaring with her characters. Illusions aren't ripped away, but instead gradually removed - it still hurts, but they're given time to not be altogether unprepared. Each and every character feels real - flaws ranging from the mild to the serious, but mixed with the positive in a way that rings with authenticity.

All in all, a great idea, executed masterfully, and a very good book.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 27 books5,585 followers
August 19, 2020
Remember when The Magicians came on the scene and it was touted as "Harry Potter for Grownups" but was actually "Someone's Bitter They Never Got to Go to Hogwarts or Narnia?"

This book is ACTUALLY Harry Potter for Grownups! With a healthy dose of Hardboiled PI Investigates Murder!

Ivy Gamble is basically Petunia Dursley: the sister of a gifted mage, who had to suffer through the slings and arrows of regular high school, while her twin went to Super Special Magic School and came home prettier . . . as well as smug and mysterious. It's enough to drive anyone to drink! And so hard-drinking, lonely Ivy has become a private investigator . . . who is hired to solve a brutal murder at the school where her sister is a star teacher. Did one of the faculty do it? One of the students? Was it a spell gone wrong?

The mystery was delightfully twisty, the characters were great, the world building . . . and that's why I'm sad now! I wanted more! So much more! I could have read about everyone and their school and Ivy's other cases for days and days! Gailey was having great fun here, and I would love to see them keep on having fun in this world!
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,022 followers
June 30, 2019
A non-magic (muggle) detective is called to Osthorne Academy for Young Mages (Hogwarts) to investigate the mysterious and gruesome death of one of their teachers. It's also where her sister teaches, so it brings up all sorts of memories and what-ifs for her own life.

I would say within the work of this author, I prefer the alternate history hippos, but this had some clever ideas in it. And it takes place largely in a library. But I hear their next book has a librarian MC so I'm looking forward to it.

I had a copy of this from the publisher through Edelweiss. It came out June 4.
Profile Image for myo (myonna reads).
638 reviews6,082 followers
September 26, 2021
the premise was good but like i guess i expected the magic school to be more cooler especially from an adults perspective but it just like a normal school?
Profile Image for Allison Hurd.
Author 3 books673 followers
April 15, 2021
This was a weird book. If you like Mercy Thompson or October Daye but wondered if someone could make it more melodramatic and awkward, you will likely enjoy this.

Content warnings

Things that kept me from DNFing:

-Nods at real teen troubles. I liked that we didn't infantilize teens or make magic school substantially different from regular high school.

-It was fast. I got through it in pretty short order.

The problem areas:

-Yucky characterization. OMG the MC is suuuuuuuch a whiner! And kept talking about her sister like she was obsessed with her. I kept expecting her to wear her sister's clothes and steal her life or that incest would spring up. Very uncomfortable. On top of that she's an alcoholic and we talk about the alcoholism like her life drives her to it, but...nothing bad happens to her? And alcoholism doesn't need something bad, but it felt like someone who didn't understand addiction writing about addiction.

-Ugh, romance. I have this problem with most UF books. Not to say that private investigators can't have love lives, but kind of bad form to develop feelings for a MURDER SUSPECT.

-Ridiculous investigation. I'd pull her license. The process is utter horseshit, I got my steps in from the angry pacing and eyerolling alone.

-Ridiculous mystery. It's not really a mystery. It's mostly a "how long can we keep this nonsense going."

-Bad worldbuilding. So, this is not uncommon in UF where magic is not common. There's really 2 ways this is handled: it's a fact of life that there's magic, or there's some reason the muggles don't know about it. This went for option C: There are trained magicians out there with expansive private schools in Northern California, but also no one knows about them, even though they do magic at bars, and at home with their families and friends, and randomly throughout the day.

-Really gross treatment of kids. I was hopeful, but the ending of this book made me want to beat both sisters up and then prosecute them. How dare they risk kids' futures for their own interests.

-Grody ending. This trash human I've come to loathe expects a decent person to want to be with her? Maybe as state's evidence. Wear a red suit and a wire, sir, and get her to tell you how she just spent the past 24 hours.

-Audionarrator. Like nails on a chalkboard the constant quaver and "woe is me" tone in her voice. I wanted to shake her until she stopped talking and then drop her off at a therapist.

In short, I actually didn't like this but I give it a second star because I wanted to finish this like I want to see the end of one of those really staged reality TV dating shows with disaster humans trying to mate.
Profile Image for Frank Phillips.
488 reviews238 followers
December 13, 2019
3.5 Stars rounded up. Very solid read! This reminded me of a more mature, slightly less fantastical version of Harry Potter, mainly because of the fact this takes place in a school for magic. Our protagonist is what Potter fans would call a muggle, she has no magic, and she is contracted to investigate the murder of a professor at this wonderful School of magic, and what's her twin sister also works at. This had the obvious element of mystery, as we are trying to figure out who dunnit throughout. I was not surprised by the reveal at all, but still satisfied by how things wrapped up at the end. I would not be surprised if this became a series, as the ending seemed a bit open-ended. The characters were all incredibly flawed, yet likeable, which made this story that much more enjoyable to me. Even our 'villian' received my sympathy, and I really understood their motivations. This was a fast paced, above-average read IMO and I can understand how it made some beat of the year lists!
Profile Image for Janet Newport.
471 reviews82 followers
March 21, 2019
Thank you NetGalley and Macmillan/Tor-Forge for this arc.

I wish I enjoyed this read more than I did. It sounded like it would be right up my alley. But it just missed out for me. I was so irritated with Ivy's self pity through out the book, that I was tempted to give up by 37%. I found it to be a slow read as it lacked the tension I usually find in murder mysteries and I had a tough time connecting to any of the characters. There was plenty of teenage angst and drama (as expected for a story set in a high school), but the "magic" didn't really sparkle for me.

2.5 stars rounded up.
Profile Image for Emily.
296 reviews1,513 followers
July 30, 2019
I desperately wanted to love it. It was a tragedy in the making.

First, some things I liked
Rahul, the main love interest: He must be protected
Magic teenagers being teenagers: YES magic teens would definitely use their magic for the most utterly juvenile things, including lots of penis clouds. A very strong bit of world building from Gailey.

And then... the bad
Alas, ear wax: I find it... insufferable when books reference Harry Potter more than the teensiest amount. This book was, in part, a correction to some of the misteps of the Harry Potter series (see juvenile teens, above). But whyyyy did this particular school for magic children have to exist in a world in which the Harry Potter series ALSO exists? It made for some cringey jokes, annoying references, and it also kind of breaks some of the logic of the world... There doesn't seem to be much care for secrecy among the mages of this world, and it seems to me like the worldwide phenomenon of Harry Potter could very well trigger a "world's colide" type event. But mostly, it was just annoying

Boring and unlikable: I can get behind an unlikable protagonist, ESPECIALLY if it's an unlikable lady. But if a character is unlikable because they're just boring? Whew boy, that makes a book a tedious slog. If all of the supporting characters (besides Rahul! I love you Rahul!) are also unlikable and boring? Oh dear.

They are LIARS who LIE!!!111!: I GET IT. 1. It felt corny how frequently the ~unreliable narrator~ stuff was referenced. But also, they don't...? Really...? Lie...? There was never an instance where this was particularly meaningful to the book. The narrator isn't ever actually unreliable.

Again, I wanted to like this so much. But I didn't.

Profile Image for Simone.
33 reviews17 followers
November 22, 2020
Honestly, I don't know what to exactly rate this because I was thoroughly enjoying it up until the end. The ending was a letdown, to say the least. It was so anticlimactic, even. If it was meant to be a surprise as to who done it, it wasn't. Not even the slightest. The reasoning behind the unexpected event(s), ever so slightly. Some of the red herrings worked but only for a little while. The further you read on, the more obvious everything becomes. Even before the main character can figure it out. Unsure if that was intended by the author but either way that ending was a disappointment indeed.

... I'll go with 3.5🌟... and not rounded up.
Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,111 reviews1,372 followers
March 7, 2021
This was a fun mashup of whodunit and Harry Potter–style magic novel. I admit that less than a week after finishing, some elements of the plot are hazy in my memory, but what I definitely remember is the astute insight into people this book showed. I'd read another book by Sarah Gailey. 3.5 stars, rounded up.

I won this review copy in a Shelf Awareness giveaway. Thank you to the publisher.
Profile Image for Michelle F.
232 reviews68 followers
November 7, 2020
A solid Urban Fantasy novel: fairly engaging with some attempts at novelty, it didn't ultimately root itself in my brain as overly outstanding.

Here's the gist:

Ivy Gamble had to be content with a life without magic. Her sister Tabitha, though, has always been a natural. Their paths diverged ages ago, with more than a few hard feelings. When the magic school that Tabitha teaches at experiences a suspicious death, they reach out to Ivy – a private detective – to try to determine what happened. Now Ivy must immerse herself in the world she never got to be a part of, face her sister, and solve a potential murder.

If I say Magic for Liars isn't memorable, it isn't because the book is bad; in fact, some narrative choices were quite clever. I thought it was a unique approach that the magical parts of the world weren't filled with whimsy and automatic superiority. Osthorne Academy looks like any other high school, and it mostly struggles with the same sorts of problems. There is no epic evil bad guy steepling his fingers in a tower somewhere. The magic is interesting and, like science, still in its relative infancy in terms of our understanding of it. There was an awful lot I wanted to hear more about, and I think Gailey laid themself a creative foundation.

As a schtick, though, I think the author leaned too hard on the mundane. Because we make so much effort to see magic as just another normal thing that's going on in the world, when a more traditional element of the genre is introduced – a prophecy – it seems out of place and almost ludicrous.

We spend a lot of time in Ivy's head with her emotions, and her resentment-lament seems stuck on repeat. How much this affects her every moment is overpowering, too sharply in focus. This more than anything else dragged down the book for me. At first I appreciated the human interest approach, but the one-track repetitiveness ended up feeling like it was taking the spotlight from more interesting aspects of the story.

While I found that the mystery was a bit thin, I really wanted to get involved in it, and all the bones were there for it to have fleshed out nicely. But Ivy didn't really get much of a chance to show much of her “normal people' skills, and the whole thrust of the puzzle felt over too soon.

TL;DR The good and the bad balanced out, for me, but I was left with a washed out impression.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews1,996 followers
July 12, 2019
I really enjoyed reading this. A mystery set at a magic school is right up my alley, particularly because the detective, Ivy, is distinctively non-magical and has to solve a case at the school where her estranged twin is teaching. I liked Ivy's voice, and I was particularly drawn into the descriptions of how ordinary the magical high school is (there are several passages about Being a Teenager that rang true and that I appreciated). The author gets away with never quite explaining the rules of the magic system, which ends up being fine because the book is really about all of the relationships that exist with magic as a complicating, background factor.

Unfortunately, the mystery ends up being unsatisfying, and it almost felt like there were 10-15 pages missing from the end of the book. There's so much setup in the first part of the book about how Ivy can never give her clients what they actually want, and how each and every choice is consequential, and I don't think that either of those themes came through in the ending sequences of the book. Even Ivy's own hangups about her lack of magical talent aren't resolved. That's realistic, but it felt like she was working through that through her relationship with Rahul, and
Profile Image for Mari.
697 reviews4,293 followers
June 10, 2019

I gobbled this up in a day and that readability and the premise are definitely the strongest pieces here. It's a mystery set at a magic school, I mean come on. I was sold immediately. The overall experience was good, but not great.

Because our protagonist was non-magic, it allowed Gailey to handwave over some of her world-building and some of the rules of magic. I was mostly okay with that while reading-- Ivy didn't understand things so we didn't understand things. After reading, I was more aware of how that hand waving left an indistinct impression of the story in my memory and feelings. This isn't one that will last.

The story was also super repetitive. We follow the main character Ivy closely, and get a lot of her thoughts about being a fish out of water inside the magic school. It could've been tightened up a lot. I liked her reflections on her decisions-- on the way that she was acting out a part with a confidence she didn't feel. I didn't think we needed to hear over and over the specifics of her feelings toward her sister or her resentment etc. Once established, the reader can carry that and connect the dots for themselves. Overall, I did like Ivy, though.

I don't think the identity of the murderer was particularly shocking. I did think it was a nice gray area motivation, however.

That said, I wanted to warn against some representation/content things. There are two queer couples in this story.

I'm sad to leave behind the potential of this world and this premise, to be honest. I enjoyed it while it lasted but I'm not sure how much will be memorable.
Profile Image for Ross Blocher.
429 reviews1,335 followers
May 8, 2020
In Magic for Liars, private investigator Ivy Gamble is pulled from her usual beat of tailing cheating spouses into her first homicide investigation, located at a high school for magical children. One of the teachers happens to be her estranged sister, who inherited all of the family's powers and left Ivy with some emotional hangups around magic. Any similarities to, say, Harry Potter quickly disapparate. The school is nestled in contemporary northern California. No castles. Nobody carries magic wands or incants in Latin. Students wrestle not with dragons or hippogriffs, but with depression and abortion (with homicide now added to the mix). Author Sarah Gailey has created an intriguing new world of magical powers (the medical applications in particular are interesting and central), but we only learn just enough rules to support the plot's needs.

I won't give much else away, but it's a mystery full of twists and turns and romantic interest. I'm still not convinced that Ivy would have been hired for this case to begin with, given her conflict of interest and lack of experience, but I'm willing to accept it as the conceit required to make this story about family and identity rather than magic or even homicide. The narrator's intense fixation on her own perceived appearance and outward signaling, and over-analysis of every word and gesture that comes her way, was a little too dialed-in for my tastes. Everyone's dials are tuned differently, however, so your mileage may vary. It feels weird complaining that we're too in the head of our protagonist, but her fixation often pulled me out of the story or distracted from information I was more interested in. Still, I was engaged in the story and relationships, and it was a quick, complex read that didn't try to tie everything up in a neat package at the end. Recommended!
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,095 reviews1,131 followers
July 8, 2021
4.5 stars

Ooh, I enjoyed this book so much! Came for the magic school from the perspective of a non-student, stayed for the nuanced characters, skillfully told mystery, refreshingly adult perspective, unreliable narrator, and all-around good writing.

Ivy Gamble is a lonely private investigator, who spends her days stalking cheating spouses and disability claimants and telling herself she definitely doesn’t want to have magic like her glamorous, estranged twin sister, Tabitha. Then she’s offered a job investigating a possible murder at the fancy private high school where Tabitha teaches. It’s a chance to try on a different life as Ivy tries to unravel the many secrets there, while making another attempt at a relationship with her sister and a romance with a sexy teacher.

The plot is fun and commits to being a murder mystery—the bulk of Ivy’s time is spent on investigation and interviews—where in a lot of fantasy, the mystery is something of an afterthought. I’m not a big mystery fan, but enjoyed this one. It’s consistently moving forward, with enough clues that readers can come up with convoluted theories along the way and that the answer seems obvious in retrospect, but enough misdirection that I didn’t figure it out in advance. Most fantasy mysteries I’ve read don’t really work—either there’s too little information provided, or the answer is too obvious—so I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was trying to figure this one out.

The setting is also fun; I love a humorous juxtaposition of magic and mundane, and the combination of a magic school with, for instance, people who talk like real modern people, including teenagers who act and sound like teenagers, is so enjoyable to read. Tidbits like the school secretary griping that girls these days just want the pill rather than learning their bodies well enough to do birth control by magic, and kids using a spell to send each other notes folded in the shape of a Pokémon, really make a setting pop: this is an author who both gets the real world and has folded magic into it. (I’m starting to think I prefer modern real-world settings in fantasy, I just dislike most of the urban fantasy genre’s tropes. Books taking a contemporary fantasy setting in an original or literary direction so often appear among my favorites.)

And while the writing is clean and unadorned and the plot moves quickly, this is literary enough that you have to appreciate flawed characters to enjoy it. Ivy is a self-destructive mess with some flawed thinking that’s much more obvious to a reader than to herself (as I suspect would be true for most of us if we had readers in our heads!). There’s power in having a story full of magic told from the POV of the one character without it: there’s this aching longing feeling about the book, Ivy wants magic so badly and can’t have it, she feels herself an outsider even when others don’t necessarily see her that way, and the reader is right there with her because after all, we don’t have magic either. We too are only visitors to this place. And Ivy’s damage feels realistic and also mundane—she went off the rails when her mom died of cancer when Ivy was in high school, and Ivy couldn’t deal with her twin having gifts that she didn’t and sometimes being a jerk about it. Compared to a lot of fantasy this feels a bit “that’s it?” until you remember that a lot of fantasy is way over the top and in the real world, this can totally mess someone up. It’s a trauma that’s actually fathomable, that brings Ivy down to earth, and so much of this book is about bringing fantasy tropes down to earth.

And the character work is excellent; I had the sense throughout that these were real people, not fantasy cutouts, but people with lives of their own of which we’re only seeing a small glimpse. Ivy’s difficult, tentative relationship with Tabitha is excellently drawn, and Tabitha herself is a great character about whom the reader ultimately can understand more than Ivy can, caught up as she is in her own emotions. Marion Torres seemed so fascinating I was very sorry to see almost nothing of her in the second half. Overall there’s a lot of great women here—the cast tilts female—without their either turning into a bunch of Strong Woman stereotypes (everybody has their flaws and limitations and Gailey doesn’t seem to be trying to make some point about strength), or being about gender or patriarchy.

The portrayal of the teenagers is also great: it’s very much from an adult perspective, someone looking back from her 30s and remembering what high school is like (and wishing she could have gone to a high school like this), but at the same time, far removed from all that now. So the teens come across as actual teens, with their drama and their lack of perspective and their desperately trying on identities and their absolute certainty that they’re right. I think it would have made me defensive to read this book as a teen. But it feels very real as an adult. And it’s a lot of fun to encounter a Chosen One who’s not only not the protagonist but also basically an obnoxious kid who doesn’t have any obvious quest and is wreaking some havoc with careless and petty use of power. In fact, the Chosen One is currently , but the end points to future character growth.

Of course, there are a few things I didn’t love. There’s very little worldbuilding outside of the school, which while it’s not necessary for the story, leaves open some questions, like just how common magic is* and why it’s being hidden. There are a few elements of the mystery that don’t quite add up or make Ivy look less than great at her job (major spoilers behind the cut):

Finally, I wasn’t thrilled with the end. It’s fitting and was clearly set up from the beginning, but also a bit of a downer. And Ivy’s personal epiphany seemed to me the wrong one for this story.

Overall though, this book was a lot of fun as well as smart and creative. I would love to see more like this and would definitely recommend.


* Mages mostly being discovered by their grade school teachers suggests there are a lot of them, or these chance encounters wouldn’t be likely to happen. Rahul’s knowing the name of every high school a mage might attend in the entire U.S. suggests there are very few.
Profile Image for Hiu Gregg.
113 reviews152 followers
August 12, 2019
I found this to be a bit of a strange book. It's slow paced in the extreme, and overflowing with mundane description. I'm talking "a few sentences to describe a hand on a doorknob" stuff. And yet...

The level of description did mean that it took me a while to fully immerse myself in the book, but that when I did, I really was immersed in the main character and her story. I've a love for broken things, and this is a story about a broken person trying to mend a broken relationship with her twin sister, against the backdrop of a magical murder mystery.

Magic for Liars leads us on a walk through the shards of broken lives, and through the many necessary lies that people tell themselves just to cope. It shows extraordinary people living ordinary lives, then peels back the facade to show the damage behind each painfully-constructed mask.

But that damage is ordinary too, it then suggests. No matter how painful.
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