The library at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages was silent save for the whisper of the books in the Theoretical Magic section. Honeyed sun poured through two tall windows onto rows of empty study tables, which still gleamed with the freshness of summer cleaning. It was a small library – each section took up only a row or two of tall metal shelves – but it was big enough to hide in. Sunlight from the windows along one wall of the library spilled between the shelves, casting long shadows.
I didn’t know what to expect from Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars. Not when I purchased it. Not when I began reading it. And not on page 100, nor 200, nor 300. It’s safe to say that I haven’t been this continuously surprised by a book in quite a while.
There are so many different things at play in this book. It hits on so many familiar themes, it feels like it should be completely cookie-cutter. But it isn’t. Gailey brings so much more to these pages than just that. Somehow, though, even at that last page turn I couldn’t quite shake those cookie-cutter expectations.
It had been a while since I’d cracked a spine not knowing what to expect. This wasn’t up for an award, or from an author I’ve known, and I hadn’t heard it discussed a thousand ways from Sunday by the time I pulled it from the shelf. I just picked it up and started reading.
And those first few pages blew me away.
The prologue reminded me of Strange the Dreamer, in its poetic descriptions and dreamy air. I was immediately hooked. I knew in those first few pages that I was not going to be able to walk away.
And then the prologue ended and I started chapter one. And I was reminded again of Strange the Dreamer. Of all the reviews that mentioned how they struggled with the tonal shift from prologue to story. Here was that same tonal shift. Here was that same jarring struggle. Here, again, I was so distracted by the loss of that beautiful and evocative prose that I had trouble getting into the real story.
That disappointment clearly stayed with me throughout my reading of the book. And it kept my expectations falsely low, even though Gailey proved, time after time after time, that she was bringing far more to the story than I was willing to accept.
It’s no secret that I annotate my books as I read them. The story my notes tell is a roller coaster of expectations. And as much as I want to bemoan how disappointed I was to get Dresden Files instead of Harry Potter, I can’t. Because Magic for Liars is a great read! Expectations or no I was engaged the entire time (as soon as I got over that first tonal shift). I was eager to know more, I was placing bets with myself about my predictions, I was emotionally invested in the development of the characters. This was a great read!
And as easy as it is to dismiss a book like this as being just “pulp”, it’s more than that, too. There’s serious depth to the characters, and intense intrigue that doesn’t feel like plot-service but like actual human experience. I mean, it’s also pulp – in the most delicious way. But there’s weight and consequence to it: in the way Gailey doles out the rules of her universe to serve the story (not reader’s curiosity), and the unexpected relationships between characters. She steps so close to tropes and then … doesn’t subvert them so much as simply write above them, elegantly, simply, without pretense.
It doesn’t hurt that Magic for Liars might be the closest we’ll ever get to the Platonic ideal of queer representation, fwiw.
In the end, it’s not the best book I’ve ever read. But I desperately wish there were 10 more just like it already on my shelf. I would read every one.