In Sarah Gailey’s “Magic for Liars” (Tor Books), a drunk, broke private detective gets hired to solve a murder at a version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. A staffer at this high school of witchcraft and wizardry was found gruesomely split in half. The authorities rule it a suicide; case closed. But the school administrator calls in the private investigator to dig deeper.
This isn’t the charming fairytale educational institution imagined by J.K. Rowling. This is a school roiling with pimply adolescent crises—it’s just that the bullying gets played out via bitter magic.
The detective, who has no magic herself, finds a web of high school crushes, teen pregnancy and petty grudges. The faculty is a mess too—including a star teacher on the faculty who happens to be the detective’s twin sister. They’re long estranged, partly because the twin has used her magic to make herself more beautiful and successful, partly because when their mother was dying of cancer, the sister didn’t use her magic to help. Magical folks say the mom’s case was too far gone, too complicated, for magical intervention. But still.
The plot drags, marinating for a long while in hard-boiled detective story clichés without any twists, or really even leads. It’s not until the end that the story gets a move on, but then, wow, it explodes like the dazzling finale of a fireworks show—all confrontations and twists and revelations. One relationship after another combusts as long festering sibling rivalries reach breaking points.
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