Prom night: often billed as one of the most magical nights of high school, in reality, it can be a time teen drama, or simply fall flat. Or in the case of Alexis, it can result in accidentally killing a boy at a post-prom party. After an impulsive decision leads to the grisly death of Josh Harper, Alexis and her friends team together to try to fix the problem the best way they know how: with magic. But when their spell doesn’t go as planned, they need to pick up the pieces of the mess and make things right- before they’re linked to Josh’s disappearance and their magic is revealed. Sarah Gailey’s 2020 novel “When We Were Magic” is a dark but satisfying coming-of-age story that manages to leave you feeling good despite its sprinkling of horror here and there.
Hands down, the strongest part of the novel is its vibrant cast of characters that grace the story. While a lot about the characters is told to the reader in the first fifty pages or so, once the novel hits its stride, the characters manage to come to life. Each girl in Alexis’ friend group can do something special with their powers from manipulating colors and makeup to communicating with animals. But each character is much more than their magic. Their different personalities and the different group dynamics at play make it easy to get invested and root for the characters.
Over the years, the “found family” trope has become really popular in online spaces. For those who aren’t aware of this wholesome and heartwarming trope, it’s often used when a character forms a deep bond with friends and challenges the concept of blood being thicker than water, especially in instances where a character’s biological family may be abusive or nonexistent. However, “When We Were Magic” manages to subvert the standard found family trope by allowing its main character to both have a loving family of ride-or-die friends and a family with her brother and a pair of supportive dads who love her. While these different spheres of her life often don’t intersect given the secrets she shares with her friends, it’s refreshing to see a protagonist being able to maintain not only a healthy relationship with her parents but to be surrounded by positivity and support despite the grim and stressful circumstances she finds herself in.
For the most part, the story is often executed very well. It manages to be both suspenseful but also a sentimental and even calm coming-of-age story as the characters spend their last days of high school trying to fix their spell. As the story goes on the stakes increase and leave you wanting more and more with each chapter, but sometimes, it feels as if the characters themselves are forgetful of the stakes or the gravity of their situation. Alexis, having accidentally killed Josh Harper, spends much of the novel wracked with guilt over what she’s done and involving her friends, but at other times the whole ordeal is treated like an afterthought or a minor hiccup instead of magical manslaughter.
Following that, the romance in the novel has its ups and downs. Overall: it is a wonderful depiction of sapphic romance and is one of many instances in the novel of LGBTQ representation that literature as a whole desperately needs where characters are allowed to be queer and engage with fantastical worlds. However, like many fictional romances both young adult and adult, straight and queer, it can also push the limits on just how slow-burn romance can be in a story without getting too frustrating for the reader. Let them be happy already, darn it! In its defense at least, the romance-angle of the story is much more engrained in the story than other stories where rebellions and world-saving are thrown off-kilter because of a love triangle or relationship drama. It may delve into magical horror at times and wonder, but in the end it is as much of a realistic and relatable coming-of-age story as it is fantasy.
While Halloween may be over, I wholeheartedly recommend “When We Were Magic” and all of its witchy wonderfulness. Despite its occasionally gruesome horror elements and suspenseful moments, it leaves you feeling like part of the gang and part of the magic, making it a joy to read.
Photo Courtesy of Pop Sugar