I’m not big on long play-by-plays when it comes to book reviews. For myself, I prefer being surprised by the twists and turns a novel takes in getting from front cover to back cover. So this is all you’re going to get in terms of plot: When We Were Magic revolves around six friends who all share the ability to do magic, and one boy who is dead, accidentally, at the hands of one of those friends.
The other thing you need to know—this novel just may be my favorite read of the year, and it’s been a pretty good year so far. It’s being marketed as YA, and while it’s true that nearly all the characters are teenagers, I would recommend it to anyone who reads genre fiction. This is the fifth book by Sarah Gailey I’ve read, and each one has impressed me. Their world-building is well thought out, exactingly rendered, and intriguing. When each book ends, I find myself wanting to go back to that world again, immediately. Gailey creates fully rounded, wonderfully quirky characters, each with distinctive personalities. They do not truck with stereotypes. Their treatment of gender is a masterclass in sensitivity and inclusivity.
Gailey does all of those things in this novel, maybe even better than in their previous books. Two things I especially want to call out for special mention—their treatment of magic, and of friendship.
Magic, as presented here, is truly awe-inspiring. Each friend can do general magic, and also has a special talent unique to them. When they cast spells together, Gailey’s descriptions of cooperative magic, the way they work together, twining their talents, is quite simply beautiful. The other thing is, these girls are still learning about what they’re capable of. They’re not wizened, powerful wizards, bored with their immense powers. They are discovering their limits, or lack there of, and experience both wonder and fear as a consequence. Through their eyes we, as readers, get to experience that wonder and fear as well. So good!
If magic is one pillar this novel rests upon, then friendship is the other. These six friends have complicated, sometimes fraught relationships that feel real and lived-in. There is love, and lust, and jealousy, and the supreme joy of knowing that no matter what happens, this circle of friends will have your back. Gailey pulls this off with downright giddy assurance.
I finished When We Were Magic late last night, and have already recommended it to half a dozen friends and family members. This one is special.