After their amazing debut novel Magic for Liars, I knew I had to read whatever Gailey decided to publish next. While their novella Upright Women Wanted wasn’t the right fit for me, they are back in top form with this YA (?) novel about six friends, the bonds that tie them together, and their troubling adventures disposing of a body…
WHEN WE WERE MAGIC
by Sarah Gailey
Published: Simon Pulse, 2020
Ebook: 352 pages
My rating: 8/10
Opening line: I didn’t mean to kill Josh Harper.
Keeping your magic a secret is hard. Being in love with your best friend is harder.
Alexis has always been able to rely on two things: her best friends, and the magic powers they all share. Their secret is what brought them together, and their love for each other is unshakeable—even when that love is complicated. Complicated by problems like jealousy, or insecurity, or lust. Or love.
That unshakeable, complicated love is one of the only things that doesn’t change on prom night.
When accidental magic goes sideways and a boy winds up dead, Alexis and her friends come together to try to right a terrible wrong. Their first attempt fails—and their second attempt fails even harder. Left with the remains of their failed spells and more consequences than anyone could have predicted, each of them must find a way to live with their part of the story.
This book starts with death by detonating penis. It took exactly two paragraphs for me to know I would love this novel and although it’s about much, much more than just that opening death scene, I did end up loving every bit of it. Alexis just wanted to have sex with a boy for the first time, to get it over with. So Josh seemed as good a pick as any but the prom afterparty ends with an exploded penis, a dead Josh, and a desperate and shocked Alexis, not knowing what to do. So naturally, she calls her five other magical friends to help. Together, they try to reverse whatever spell gone haywire caused this grisly scene, but they only succeed in removing some of Josh. Certain body parts remain and now need to be gotten rid off.
This makes it sound like this book is all about gore and covering up an accidental murder but it’s really not. Sure, that’s part of it but it’s really about a group of friends who happen to be able to do magic, each in her own way, each a little different from the others. We see these amazing young women through Alexis’ eyes and so it becomes very clear very early that while she may love all her friends, there is one among them that she may love in a different way.
I can’t tell you how enjoyable it was to get to know these six girls over the course of this story. The plot became almost not important anymore because I just wanted to know who these people are, how they met, what they can do, and watch them just be wonderful, loyal friends to each other. Whether it’s Marcelina with her plant magic, Paulie (the cheerleading Taylor Swift lookalike) and her fierceness, Iris who can create new spells out of nowhere, Maryam who takes make up artist skills to a whole new level, passionate Roya who is a champion swimmer even without magic, or Alexis herself who – even in her own narrative – constantly sells herself short, worries whether she even deserves these friends and whom I wanted to hug the entire time.
The diversity in this cast was just beautiful to read. Not only are the girls from different social, ethnical, and religious backgrounds, some of them are queer, Alexis has two dads and an adopted brother, and they are each just amazingly different people who came together to form this beautiful found family that just works.
Covering up a murder for your best friend is one thing. Actually taking a body part and trying to get rid of it is a whole different story. But they all agree to it, without hesitation, because that’s what magical friends do. Of course Josh’s absence is noted soon and eventually the police start investigating, so there is the plot keeps its tension until the end. But again, that’s not what made this book so good. It wasn’t even Alexis’ obvious pining after Roya and my hope that these two would finally get their shit together and make out, the best part of it was really just watching these girls respect the hell out of each other. They are so different and they react to trauma in different ways. One of them may want to be alone, another one may need to vent and shout out her feelings, yet another one could just want to pretend everything is fine – and the others all respect that and do what needs to be done so their friends can be okay. I absolutely loved that!
The more we learn about the six girls (who are represented pretty amazingly on the cover by the way), the more we also get to see of their magic. While small magic can be done with a handwave and a smile – like changing your nail polish or cleaning a spot off your shirt – the big magic they’re trying to do now to somehow bring Josh back to life or at least keep Alexis from being called a murderer is different. It has a cost and it’s not cheap. But they deal with this as they do with everything else. If one of them is not okay because of the terrible things they’re faced with, then they will all be not-okay together.
The book’s ending wasn’t exactly a revelation but it still felt incredibly right for this story. As much as I wanted to hug Alexis throughout the book, I also kept wondering if I should even sympathise with her. She did after all kill a person, whether by accident or not! And while she feels all sorts of remorse, the fact remains that Josh has been murdered. Even if the girls manage to somehow bring him back, that guy can never be the same… But because this isn’t the kind of book that focuses on the murder investigation or the group trying to make up clever lies to cover it up, that didn’t bother me too much. It was there, in the back of my mind, the entire time but the friendships and potential romance took over pretty quickly.
I’m impressed with Sarah Gailey’s ability to write stories that put such different weight on certain aspects. While Magic for Liars had a lot more focus on the actual murder mystery, characters were still highly important to that book. Then in her novella Upright Women Wanted, there was almost no plot and the characters, while important, were mostly there to transport a message – an important one, but one that didn’t particularly work for me. Here, it’s neither message nor plot – it’s characters all around. If you like the way Becky Chambers’ characters treat each other, then definitely pick this up. There’s no aliens here, just believable witchy characters who can teach all of us a thing or two about friendship and respect and love.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent