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When We Were Magic

By Sarah Gailey 

24 Jun, 2020

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Sarah Gailey’s 2020 When We Were Magic is a standalone contemporary fantasy novel.

Alexis is determined to make Roya, her crush, jealous. Plan: Alexis will seduce Josh Harper at a post-prom party. Unfortunately, once alone with Josh, Alexis kills him with the magic she has barely mastered. Bad plan. 

Like the rest of her friends — Marcelina, Roya, Iris, Paulie, and Maryam — Alexis has a talent for magic. Lacking access to a British boarding school for apprentice mages, the girls have been forced to learn magic by trial and error. Until now, it’s been exciting journey of self-discovery. Now Josh is dead and Alexis has no idea why.

Her gal pals are quick to assist Alexis. Involving the authorities is probably a bad idea; better to use magic to make the problem go away. Resurrecting Josh is beyond their abilities, so the girls settle for making his corpse vanish. Magic misfires again. The blood spatter disappears, but Josh’s corpse doesn’t vanish; it is merely transformed. The girls are forced to smuggle Josh’s remains out of the house in duffle bags. 

It does not take long for Josh’s parents to report him missing. The girls need to dispose of his fragments quickly, in locations where they are unlikely to be found. Magical problems recur. Each time one of Josh’s parts is hidden, something important disappears from the mind of the girl who did the hiding: memories, the color green. The girls have no choice but to keep on keeping on, because the alternative is admitting to an unbelieving world that magic exists, and that Alexis somehow killed Josh.

You might think that Alexis would be entirely focused on avoiding apprehension for murder. She’s in real danger: other party-goers saw her vamping Josh and leaving the party with him; she was wearing a glitter-shedding dress and there’s probably glitter all over his bedroom (ask me about the pervasiveness of glitter). But Alexis is a love-smitten teenager, so she’s distracted by Roya, Roya’s reactions, and Roya’s stubborn refusal to return Alexis’ affection. 


Note: it’s not that Roya is unaware of Alexis’ interest in her. Everyone in their circle can see that Alexis is crushing on Roya. But Roya wants Alexis to say something, directly, which is just what shy Alexis cannot do. Ah young love! Probably humanity is doomed. 

This book makes a fair case for the utility of schools like the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages (as described in Gailey’s previous book, Magic for Liars). It’s not the greatest case, because Osthorne also features a magical death. Maybe the moral here is that hanging around magical folk is ill-advised, even for magical people. Although that kind of undermines the friendship and romance subplots …

Of course, there’s poor Josh, whose only sin was to be available when Alexis decided to make Roya jealous. He’s basically this book’s dead hooker, there to be fridged to jumpstart the plot. Alexis feels guilty about having inadvertently explodinated him, but she’s not going to feel guilty enough that it will shape the rest of her life. Heck, she isn’t even distracted from her pursuit of Roya. There is more dodging of consequences in this book than there were attempts to deal with them [1]. Well, I guess there are enough women in fridges that there’s room for a guy or two. 

Josh aside, this book was a fun read. For some reason, despite their always competent prose, Gailey’s Hippopotamus books never clicked for me [2] but their urban fantasies do. Gailey’s teenagers flail their way endearingly though the complicated world of romance, skillfully turning opportunity into obstacle using only their inability to communicate clearly. Plus, who doesn’t like stories about friends getting together to cover up a manslaughter?

When We Were Magic is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: See also the subplot wherein the teens (non-lethally) silence a potential witness. 

2: Which baffles me, because … how I can not enjoy a story about the consequences of introducing Africa’s most deadly animal to Louisiana in an attempt to make the bayous more commercially viable? But for some reason the books’ undoubted charm eludes me.