Sarah Gailey’s debut novel Magic for Liars is a standalone modern-fantasy-private-investigator story.
The Osborne Academy for Young Mages has a problem. Health and Wellness teacher Sylvia Capley has been found bisected and quite dead in the library. Headmaster Marion Torres does not believe the official explanation, magical mishap. She believes it was murder.
Torres turns to Ivy Gamble for help. Unlike her sister Tabitha, who teaches at Osborne, Ivy has no magical talent whatsoever. What she does have is a PI license and a long experience of uncovering secrets.
It would probably suck to be the sole mundane in a school full of mages. The case might also be a bit of a stretch for Ivy, given that most of her work has involved uncovering infidelity, not investigating murder. Moreover, sisters Tabitha and Ivy have not spoken in years. There are many reasons not to take the case … but Ivy does.
Osborne may be packed to the gunwales with mages young and old (including one earnest young man who believes he is the Chosen One) but it’s still essentially a high school. It has the usual cliques, ill-fated romances, and petty rivalries. What it doesn’t seem to have is anyone who looks in the least murderous. Yet Sylvia’s bisected corpse strongly argues that at least one person in the school is a killer.
Was it the resident mean girl? The boy who believes he is the Chosen One? A staff member? It might be anyone in a school that turns out to be rife with poor life decisions and embarrassing secrets.
If, as the headmaster believes, Sylvia was murdered, just how far will the killer go to conceal their crime?
The aforementioned poor life decisions do not involve following a Dark Lord. The closest this book has to a Dark Lord is a mean girl.
I note, as I often do, that it’s peculiar that magic is an accepted fact in this world and yet it doesn’t seem to have affected history in any obvious way. Ivy’s world is our world, except some people can do magic. Implausible, but I suppose if one didn’t make this one assumption, one couldn’t write modern-day fantasy stories.
Gailey does an excellent job of faking the reader out. The setting reads like an Americanized  Hogwarts until the screaming starts. The author turns out to be far more interested in the mystery plot than in magic. Which is all to the good, as the protagonist doesn’t know anything about magic. What she does understand is people , which is enough to crack the case.
I enjoyed this book sufficiently that I began to worry that Gailey could turn to writing mystery rather than SFF (mystery being vastly more lucrative). They could do it; this book shows that they could. This is a charming mystery, well written, with characters whose foibles aren’t stock fantasy tropes. The author even gives us a reasonable, plausible, solution to whodunnit.
1: No transphobia and no unfortunate ethnic stereotypes.
2: Without being particularly adept at understanding herself. I’m sure you must know people like that.