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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review: Magic for Liars

Magic for Liars appeared in several year's end "best-of" lists, so I picked it up with high hopes. It's set in a parallel world to our reality where magic exists, and the novel takes place mostly in an imaginary private school in Sunol. The viewpoint character, Ivy Gamble cannot perform magic, but is the sister of a talented magician who's part of the faculty at the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, and when a teacher at the school dies, Ivy as a private investigator, is brought in despite the authorities pronouncing suicide.

So far so good. A murder mystery, a magical high school, and a viewpoint character who can get the magic system explained to her by the magical characters, and by grit, smarts or a combination of other personal qualities, will solve the mystery, lead a denouement, and grant us closure.

At a high level all of those properties are true of this book, and the setting is somewhat fresh and there are a few red herrings thrown in. Yet the book fails on several levels:
  1. The magic system is never explained, so the mystery is not fair. In other words, at the denouement, rules that were previously laid down in the novel were broken, so the reader has no prayer of solving the mystery on his or her own, except through the meta-mechanism of: "it's always the spouse." This is unsatisfying for many obvious reasons.
  2. Despite the setting being a school, there's not enough faculty or students in the novel to grant you a feeling of reality. You get the impression that this is a play that's designed for 5-6 characters, and despite the apparent setting you're stuck talking with/thinking about the same 5-6 characters. (Which means that if you took a random guess you would be right 1/6th of the time)
  3. OK, you can claim that (1) is never necessary in a Raymond Chandler novel. But Chandler's novels (and many sterling examples of the genre, such as Altered Carbon) have protagonists that are witty, sardonic, cynical with brilliant turns of phrases, while Sarah Gailey's Ivy Gamble is an alcoholic person who's out of touch with herself, and shows no scintillating wit.
I got to the end of the novel, but didn't feel that the pay off was worth the effort. After I was done I felt like cleansing my palette and going off and reading some decent Raymond Chandler instead.  If this novel wins any awards it'll be because of politics rather than good writing (like All the Birds in the Sky) Not recommended.

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