Sarah Gailey on Bodily Autonomy and Magic

Sarah Gailey on Bodily Autonomy and Magic

Private investigator Ivy Gamble’s spent her life keeping a safe distance away from magic, but when she’s called to investigate a murder at an academy for mages, she finds herself unable to refuse. Things grow tense when the case brings her face-to-face with her magical twin sister. Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars explores the ways magic and power are intertwined and the damaging consequences of using magic on others. To celebrate the book’s publication, here Gailey dives into the ways magic is often used to remove a person’s autonomy.

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Love spells are bad.

They are also a pretty fundamental staple of a lot of magical fiction, but love spells and potions are ethically wrong. They strip away the victim’s ability to decide for themselves whether or not they want a relationship. They violate consent by removing a person’s autonomy, forcing that person to love and want someone they otherwise might have ignored. Often, these spells come with a lust component, which makes the consent issue more obvious: A spell that forces someone to want sex is bad. One hundred percent bad. Don’t do it.

Narratives that explore the consequences of love-related magic often examine the traumatic consequences of removing someone’s emotional, mental, and sexual autonomy. Sometimes that exploration is shallow, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s infamous “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” episode; other narratives examining the exact same issue can be deep and thoughtful, as in Laini Taylor’s novel Strange the Dreamer.

Most people can agree that the removal of autonomy is reprehensible. This relatively cut-and-dried concept has very few exceptions: Immobilization is useful in medical environments—it’s a crucial part of triage and injury prevention. Still, interference with a person’s bodily autonomy without their consent in the name of medical practice is both ethically questionable and potentially traumatizing.

And yet, in fantasy canon, there’s a rich legacy of casual magical interference with bodily autonomy. An easy example of this is Locomotor Mortis, the leg-locker charm in the Harry Potter books. This spell renders its victim unable to bend their legs or walk, fully immobilizing them. Locomotor Mortis is treated as inconvenient and embarrassing, but relatively harmless. But experiencing this magic would be significantly more traumatic than the media portraying it lets on. The forceful, unstoppable revocation of one’s bodily autonomy is deeply frightening; it forces a vulnerability that is based on power rather than trust. The removal of bodily autonomy is the removal of one’s ability to protect oneself from harm.

This is a major theme of Magic for Liars: What is the traumatic impact of irresponsible magic? What happens to a person’s psyche after they’ve had a spell performed on them, in the name of helping or hurting, by someone who doesn’t recognize the potential for harm? Who has the right to interfere with another person’s body, and what gives them that right?

As a society, we have decided that those who have proven themselves intelligent enough to understand the workings of the human body are the ones who deserve our trust. As a result, we give them access to our most significant vulnerabilities, allow them to remove our bodily autonomy, and hope that they will help us.

In fantasy as in life, that trust carries consequences.

Magic for Liars is, in part, an exploration of what happens when people with power forget the humanity of the people who have given them that power. That forgetfulness is dangerous to the body, to the soul, and to the psyche—whether it’s magical or not.

Hugo Award-winner Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and The Boston Globe, and they are a regular contributor for Tor and the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog. Their most recent fiction credits include Fireside Fiction, Tor, and Uncanny Magazine. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was published in 2017 via Tor and was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula Award finalist.


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