Back in the days of Harry Potter fandom, I often found myself on the side of Muggles, hating the way the books found casual cruelty towards them so funny, so deserving. I remember once talking with someone who was surprised to discover that I identified with the Muggles in the story when it never occurred to them that they wouldn’t be a wizard. I recall saying something like, “If you point a stick at a door and say something in fake-Latin, will the door open? No? Then you are a Muggle.”
At the time I thought I was just being logical, but it was more than that. I automatically assume that if I lived in a world where there were wizards or mutants or benders, I wouldn’t be one of them. And I’d be jealous. So I always identify with the also-ran, the ordinary person, the not-Chosen One, the B-student. And I identify with them as such. I don’t, as some prefer, like to imagine stories where it turns out everyone’s wrong or they’re misunderstood or simply have bad teachers. No, I find the plight of the non-gifted too compelling.
When I started reading Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars, I knew only that it was about a non-magical detective investigating a murder at the magical school where her estranged sister teaches. But I had no idea it would be so completely the story of the girl left behind. One that dealt with all the hopeless pain that brings, and the hard-won maturity and wisdom it could offer. Maturity and wisdom that could be denied those Chosen Ones with all the gifts.
A twist of DNA gave Ivy Gamble’s sister Tabitha all the magic and the psychological damage of that random gene mutation is intense. Some authors might have used Ivy’s jealousy and bitterness to turn her into a villain who attacks her sister, proving how she didn’t deserve magic anyway. (Looking at you, J.K. Rowling!) But Gailey’s heroine hurts nobody more than herself. She doesn’t notice when her lack of magic gives her a clearer view of the case than the mages around her—and Gailey never makes that blind spot so obvious as to feel condescending.
Ivy’s life experience also gives her a unique understanding of the teenagers she’s interviewing, one that I personally haven’t come across very much in YA. She understands how much they want to be the hero of the story—any story. She uses this understanding to manipulate them, yes, but not without respect. So many YA books are about teenagers thrust into adventure that gives their lives a clear purpose and tells them who they are. Gailey’s teenagers, though magical, are just stumbling around searching for that meaning. Ivy sometimes resents them for “wasting” their magic on silly things like pranks, but of course doesn’t know what she would have done with magic had she had any. Non-magical gifts can be wasted too.
The relationship between the two sisters, or the lack thereof, is at the center of the story, and Gailey doesn’t take the easy way out here either. Reading it, I felt my own emotions rising and falling along with Ivy’s, desperately wanting her to recapture the close bond with a sister she had in her childhood, fearing for her because of how much she wanted it, hoping she would get what she was looking for one minute, cynically pitying her for thinking she’d get it the next. I wanted to yell at Ivy that of course lying to anyone about her own magical status would come back to bite her, but when it did, I wanted to tell off any mage who held it against her.
There’s a moment in the book where Ivy describes herself and a magical character talking as if “speaking two different but peripheral languages.” Ivy and her sister are likewise living two different but peripheral life stories that may only occasionally and coincidentally connect. They’ve both been shaped by the exact same circumstances—their magical ability, the death of their mother, their father’s grief—and reacted to them in opposite ways that mirror their abilities—one forever defining herself as powerless, the other defining herself solely through her power. On paper they might have seemed destined to easily reunite and help each other. But life, even in a world where prophesies exist and bad memories can be extracted and thrown out like medical waste, is just not that fair.
Meg Belviso holds a BA in English from Smith College and an MFA from Columbia University. As a writer and editor, she chronicles angel encounters as staff editor of Angels on Earth magazine and has written for various fiction and nonfiction properties, including several biographies in Penguin’s Who Was…? series.