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Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Liar of Red Valley by Walter Goodwater (Reviewed by Daniel P. Haeusser)

 


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Order The Liar of Red Valley HERE
 
OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Walter Goodwater is a software engineer, fencing coach, and writer. He’s also the author of The Liar of Red Valley, a fantasy about dangerous magic and deadly secrets in a rural California town, and the Cold War Magic series (Breach, Revolution).
 
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Don't trust the Liar.
Do not cross the King.
Never, ever go in the River.
 
In Red Valley, California, you follow the rules if you want to stay alive. But they won't be enough to protect Sadie now that she's become the Liar, the keeper of the town's many secrets. Friendships are hard-won here, and it isn't safe to make enemies.
And though the Liar has power -- power to remake the world, with just a little blood--what Sadie really needs is answers: Why is the town's sheriff after her? What does the King want from her? And what is the real purpose of the Liar of Red Valley?
 
FORMAT/INFO: The Liar of Red Valley is written from the third-person point-of-view of Sadie, and consists of 32 chapters. Originally published in hardcover in September 2021, the novel releases in a paperback edition of 400 pages from Solaris Books (Rebellion Press) on 19th July 2022.
 
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: With her mother’s sudden death from cancer, young Sadie feels devastated and betrayed, angry that her mother kept the illness hidden, frustrated that Sadie has now been thrust into taking over the mysterious magical position of the Liar. So much truth has been kept from her that she doesn’t even really know what this position entails, how it works, or even why it exists.

Such incomplete comprehension is on par for being a resident of Red Valley. While the rest of California and the nation beyond may be ‘normal’ for all others, residents here have become accustomed to certain truths and rules, trained to look aside when they might be forced to see signs of the cosmic powers that also call the valley home, and who rule within.
 
At the top of the list of these entities is the King, an ancient force that has apparently installed the Liar as one of its human tools within the community, though with some degree more of freedom than the possessed, Men-in-Black-esque King’s Men who enforce the King’s will on the population. The King maintains power in the Valley – power perhaps helped from the natural geological properties of the area. But, the King’s rule also affords Red Valley protection from other competing cosmic powers whose magic also seeks control of the area, entities who may have even less regard for the human residents there.
 
But, what exactly does the Liar have to do with this all? Sadie knows her mother kept books, in which she recorded lies told for townspeople that came to her, lies sealed in blood to make reality. She has some idea that many of those lies were mundane, little things (and thus less costly), while others were too grand (and painfully achieved) for her mother to ever talk about. But why must this service be available? Why did her mother have the job? How did she work the magic? The King’s Men make it clear that Sadie needs to figure things out, and fast. But the book kept by Sadie’s mother has gone missing, and forces begin coming for its secrets before she can figure things out. Threats like the new town lawman who seems to want to wrest local power from this so-called King, and drug users whose minds and bodies have been colonized by ever thirsty demons.
 
Sadie’s search to find her mother’s book and discover how she is supposed to serve as the Liar leads her down a path of discovery into the nature of the supernatural powers that reside in Red Valley and threaten from beyond. But the journey also takes her on the road of learning more about her ancestors – back to the first Liar – and some surprises about who or what exactly she is herself.
 
The elusive nature of the premise and plot of The Liar of Red Valley is both a key selling point to the novel and a drawback. The novel is one part gothic mystery and one part cosmic horror, with an excellent secretive atmosphere to make things engrossing for readers. But also this lends a bit of frustration to readers, as one tries to figure out exactly what is going on in the nature of this Red Valley world, right along with the confusion of the protagonist. It starts gripping, and the ultimate conclusion of the novel does achieve resolution in making coherent sense out of the plot and premise. It’s a wonderful wrap-up that I can’t say much on in detail, but it melds the themes of the novel together perfectly.
 
However, prior to reaching that resolution, things tend to drag a bit. After the reader gets their initial balance steady through the first portion of the book and intrigue is captured, there is still a bit more floundering in confusion and delay until the reveal of the novel’s close can arrive. ‘Drag’ is perhaps a misleading word to use here. What ‘drags out’ is that plot resolution – clarity at a time the reader is really looking for things to make a bit more sense, not less. The ‘pacing’ of the action doesn’t let up though. Goodwater works to keep reader’s engaged by keeping the action going, continuing the pressures of antagonists against Sadie, and bringing in secondary characters to broaden the world building.
 
Most notable in that regard is a pair of time-traveling men (along with their house) originally from the 1800s, men who knew the original Liar and who Sadie turns to for help/information. They provide some needed comic lightness to the novel, a twist to things that I actually would have enjoyed seeing develop more. (And I wouldn’t mind seeing in another novel set in this universe.)
 
Once it comes time for the twist of the novel’s ending and for all to be revealed – readers will likely be thrilled over it. However, again, that focus comes at a cost. The resolution of all the antagonistic plot threads that aren’t part of the core mystery of the Liar get wrapped up with little fanfare or trial. In other words, elements are added apart from that core mystery to keep the novel going. But once time comes for the ending focus, those elements get resolved anticlimactically – to make room for that core reveal. The reader should end up definitely satisfied with how things all tie together. But that thrill may not be enough to forgive the shorter stick given to all the other facets to the novel, particularly the sheriff and the drug-ridden demonic Smiling Boys.
 
Even if I thought it had imperfections of balance in execution, I enjoyed The Liar of Red Valley and was impressed with how well Goodwater handles a core twist ending to intersect with the novel’s themes.
 
CONCLUSION: The Liar of Red Valley is a book about the power of lies in a society, and both the harm and good that these might engender for people. It’s also about defining a life for oneself, rather than being at the mercy of others, be them humans or gods. Both the themes and the gothic atmosphere/cosmic horror vibes are likely to resonate with a lot of readers. However, contortions of the plot and its characters into a mystery for both the protagonist and the reader may delay or frustrate reader satisfaction. Yet, for those who love a twisty mysterious thrill ride, that should overcome any imperfections.

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