Sarah Gailey shifts gears in her first full length novel, Magic for Liars. Her previous two novellas (River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow), now published together under the title American Hippo, imagined an alternate 19th Century in which hippos roamed the American South. Magic for Liars also has a fantastical premise but something that will be much more familiar to fantasy readers – a murder in a high school for magic users. Yes, Magic for Liars places itself firmly in Harry Potter territory but in an adult mode more along the lines of post-Potter fiction series like Lev Grossman’s Magicians or Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London.
After a cold open involving a gruesome death in a magical library, the narrative moves into full on noir detective mode. Ivy Gamble is a fairly successful private detective, making a living tracking down cheating husbands and small debts in San Francisco. Like many of her fictional ilk, she is a hard drinking loner, living with regret and sorrow. Then an opportunity comes up to do something big. Headmaster of the local high school for mages (they do not like to use the term wizards and witches in this world) hires her to look into the death of Sylvia, one of their teachers. The death that has already been ruled a self inflicted accident by magical authorities but the headmaster can not let the matter rest. Ivy is not magical and jumps at the job before realising that her estranged and very magical twin sister works at the school as a teacher.
Ivy is an engaging heroine although carrying a massive chip on her shoulder about her inability to do magic and her sister’s successes. The case itself unspools as crime readers would expect, with Ivy often frustrated in her attempts to get solid clues while also pursuing a romance with one of the teachers. Along the way, Gailey plays with fantasy concepts like the idea of a ‘Chosen One’ and different styles of magic.
Magic for Liars is a reasonably successful private detective meets magical academy mash up. The solution is fairly predictable from about half way through although some of the plot wrinkles take a little longer to become clear. On the magic front, the reader, much like Ivy herself is kept well outside of the system to the point where it is so opaque that it ends up being anything the plot needs it to be. Making the whole, while enjoyable, slightly less than the sum of its parts.