When We Were Magic, Sarah Gailey (Simon Pulse 978-1-5344-3287-1, $18.99, 352pp, hc) March 2020.
Sarah Gailey’s When We Were Magic opens with a murder. (This is no spoiler, because the first sentence of the book is, “I didn’t mean to kill Josh Harper.”) Everything that follows is the result of that murder: all the action, all the drama, all the angst. If Josh Harper hadn’t died (in a very bloody manner) then Alexis, Paulie, Roya, Iris, Marcelina, and Maryam would not have ended up in a monumentally hot mess that resulted in radical changes to all of their friendships.Through all of this, however, Josh remains dead, which is what makes When We Were Magic an unexpected novel and not at all what one could term a tale of happily ever after.
The girls are magic. In their world, which is exactly our world, this is a surprising development, which each of them kept secret until exchanging confidences (as teenage girls will do) at different points in their friendships. Josh dies the night of senior prom after the group has long established the levels of their magic. Alexis killed him. (Again, no spoiler, as we know this by page five.) But here are a couple of surprises: Josh is not a bad guy and Josh did nothing wrong. This murder is the result of unplanned magic – an accident. Everything that follows his death is what anyone who read Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, or watched the movie will have seen coming from a mile away. The girls try to make things right and in the process, inevitably, it all gets worse.
While magic plays a key role in the novel, the drama is found more in the aftermath of its use and how the group holds together as the events surrounding what happened to Josh overwhelm their lives. The police are involved, parents are worried (how do you tell your two dads that you are not in danger because you are the murderer?), and suspicions are rising alarmingly at school. As the stress grows, so do the magical ramifications of what they have done (there’s always a price, isn’t there?), and it becomes increasingly difficult to fix this mess. Then Iris goes too far with her magic, Marcelina suffers a bitter personal blow, Paulie makes an unwise choice, Maryam feels lost, and Roya and Alexis get to the bottom of just what went wrong with Josh (which ends up involving a big but welcome distraction). Ultimately, they all learn something about what friendship means, which is good, but Josh is still murdered and that is not at all one might expect in a YA novel.
Gailey is on a bit of a publishing roll right now, with the magic school murder mystery Magic for Liars out last year and the futuristic western (starring “queer librarian spies”!), Upright Women Wanted, out recently. When We Were Magic follows the narrative flair of these previous novels while tackling the choices and ramifications of magic use, with a healthy dose of sass and cynicism, plus discussion of make-up tips, fashion choices, and the best hairstyles for the moment. The girls are standouts, both individually and as a prickly but loyal group, and the many personal dramas all read as sharply realistic. I did feel that poor Josh never received the care and concern he was due; there are no remorseful interactions with his family or friends to be found here, but maybe YA fiction has just trained me to expect that. A bad thing happens in When We Were Magic, and cleaning up after it means a lot of other kind-of-slightly-less-bad things must be done. But the girls are all right and, hopefully, by the end, poor Josh’s death will not have been in vain. Score another one for Gailey, who never fails to make their readers think about what they would do if written into one of their highly original novels.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.
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