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The Liar of Red Valley by Walter Goodwater


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The Liar of Red Valley

by Walter Goodwater
September 28, 2021 · Rebellion Publishing Ltd.
Science Fiction/Fantasy

TW/CW

TW for: violence, police brutality, racism, unjust incarceration, house fire that spreads and burns down large sections of a town and causes mass evacuations, pressure to continue an unwanted pregnancy, death of a parent

The Liar of Red Valley is kind of awesome, despite an abrupt ending and some world-building issues. This is a book of suburban/rural fantasy in which a young woman has to make some desperate choices to save her own life and the life of her small town. Here is the publisher’s description of what is, frankly, a fairly confusing plot:

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?

Red Valley is a town like a lot of California towns – it has a Walmart, a high school, a hospital, and a Tastee-Freez. It’s generally run-down and a lot of stores are closed with plywood over the windows. It’s a town that doesn’t have much going for it – except for the King of Red Valley, a mysterious presence who claims to protect it, and a Liar. When Sadie’s mother, the Liar of Red Valley, dies, Sadie realizes that she is, by default, the new Liar. People come to the Liar and pay or barter for her to write something down. Whatever is written will immediately be true. A lot of people have a stake in this power and soon everybody wants to get at Sadie, including the King, the King’s rival, The Hunter, and Undersheriff Hassler, a corrupt human who wants power for himself. All Sadie wants is to be left alone but she has to make allies if she wants to save her town from being collateral damage in a three-way war.

I loved the sense of place and the melding of magical and mundane. I live in California and I know exactly the kind of town the author describes. So many California towns and cities, including my own, are defined by a river, creek, or culvert that cuts through the middle, so I liked the idea of the river as being its own supernatural force as well as a defining line between the human side of town and the not-so human side. Every year our own river glitters invitingly and every year people described as “strong swimmers” drown in it, and the way this book uses the river as a malevolent intelligent being that tricks people into it so that it can devour them is clever and horrifying. A lot of other magical elements also blend perfectly into the small dying town atmosphere, such as the “Laughing Boys,” teenagers who allow themselves to be possessed by demons for a high (the town also has a meth and opioid crisis) and the structural and institutional racism (expressed both via supernatural and mundane means) that blocks Black and Latinx people from accessing the same rights and opportunities as White people.

Meanwhile Sadie is scrappy as hell. If her age is given I missed it, but she’s probably between 19 – 25 years old judging from the fact that most of her peers have recently left for college. I admired her gritty-ness, her ability to look unfazed in a crisis even if she actually feels extremely freaked out, her determination, her dry sense of humor, and her intelligence. From the start of the book her loneliness and her toughness are apparent. Because she narrates the book, we also get to see her inner vulnerability. She’s easy to identify with.

The other elements of the book are a little hit-or-miss. Sadie’s best friend is Latinx and while Sadie’s privilege is called out, the story still centers the experience of a White character over the supporting Latinx characters. Meanwhile, people can come and go from the town but the town’s relationship to the outside world is never explained. Part of the plot involves a fire that begins as arson and becomes a wildfire that damages much of the town, which also suffers from damage caused by the various supernatural conflicts that occur.

Show Spoiler

The town’s future is left unresolved which frustrated me given the real-life fire-related trauma experienced by much of California. I read this during a hellish fire season, and to leave the town’s fate open-ended felt to me like leaving a wound uncovered.

There’s also a plot twist that I didn’t fully believe in, although I admired Sadie’s no-nonsense response to it.

Generally, though, I enjoyed this gritty book that incorporates the supernatural into the type of place often ignored by fantasy, which tends to go either full rural or full urban. I would happily read more about Sadie and I’m genuinely curious about her future. The book ends on a hint of optimism but leaves many possibilities open. I felt that this book ended as a marginally satisfactory stand-alone, but if Sadie has a sequel I will be excited for it.

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