Monday, July 05, 2021

Goodwater, The Liar of Red Valley (2021)

Walter Goodwater, The Liar of Red Valley. Solaris, 2021. Pp. 367. ISBN 978-1-78108-911-8. $14.99.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade


These were the words that greeted me upon opening my parcel from Solaris Publishing, stark white across a russet-red cover. To say I was intrigued was putting it mildly.

The Liar of Red Valley introduces us to the titular town of Red Valley, a small American settlement in which these three rules are sacrosanct. In this place, magic (and the King) reigns; shadows walk the streets, demons possess and destroy the bodies and minds of the naïve and disenfranchised, an immortal and indestructable oak tree grows in the middle of the town diner, and ghosts linger in the shadows. And in the world of Red Valley, the Liar is both revered and loathed. A woman with the power to make a lie, any lie, be it as petty “I am not going bald” or as huge as “My child never died,” seem the truth… but only within the town’s limits, and only if you are willing to pay her price. And her price is a dreadful one.

Sadie is the daughter of Red Valley’s Liar, and the novel begins with the Liar’s sudden death. This leaves Sadie to cope with not only her complicated feelings towards her mother, but also her new role. Sadie must learn how to be the Liar, with all the magic it pertains, and she must do so quickly; there are many opposing forces warring in Red Valley, and all of them want the Liar’s power on their side.

I am not even sure where to start with this book. Goodwater has created such a rich, vivid world in under 400 pages, filled with interesting, flawed, likable characters, the standout of which is Sadie herself. Sadie is angry, stubborn, determined, alternately cynical and naïve, and the perfect guide to the otherworldly streets of her town. She’s inexperienced enough to make some rather drastic errors, but wise enough to believe little of what she sees and is told (she is the Liar, after all). And her motivation is understandable; she doesn’t set out to change Red Valley forever, just to understand her power and make those harrying her leave her alone. Of course, she will end up changing Red Valley forever, but to get into that would wander into spoiler territory. And trust me, you want to go into this story blind.

Accompanying Sadie on her journey is a motley and lovable cast of supporting characters, my favourite of which is probably the cantankerous Victorian physician and his disabled librarian boyfriend, both of whom travel through time in their disappearing 19th century house. If you’re lucky enough to be around when the Gray House reappears in Red Valley, they’ll take you on a historical tour for ten dollars (group rates available). Every time these two showed up, they made me grin. The Liar of Red Valley is very much a self-contained story, but if a follow-up book about these two and their adventures was ever to show up, I wouldn’t complain.

The world of Red Valley really is what makes the book as immersive as it is. By making the town this little reservoir of magic in an otherwise modern America, Goodwater has created a unique and self-contained world it is very easy to get lost in. A dark, twisted town of bleak alleys and backwater taverns, black rivers, ruined drug houses, Victorian manors, and dusty crossroads. A lot of little details come together to create a very convincing and, in its own way, beautiful setting. In some ways I wish that it had been better developed. The reader comes away not knowing what the thing in the River truly is, or the nature of the Long Shadows, or a myriad other things, but on the other hand an explanation of any kind might have weakened the Gothic mystique of the novel. So swings and roundabouts, I suppose. And honestly, the pacing is so good and so quick that it’s hard to even notice. The same is true of the few scattered plot holes (how did Sadie know exactly when the Gray House was due to reappear?), especially in the roller coaster of a conclusion.

Which is also where I find the story falls apart just a little. Not enough to spoil the story, but it feels like we’ve only just been introduced to this fascinating and bewitching little microcosm of magical Americana only for it to be the center of an apocalyptic war between cosmic forces. It’s kind of like having all seven series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer crammed into a single book. It’s still well-written and immensely entertaining, but it all gets a bit too much in the end, not to mention feeling a bit rushed (Sadie seems to win everyone over to her side with remarkable speed). In particular, the sheriff’s end is quite unceremonious given that he was the main antagonist for the first half of the book, and by the end we seem to lose track of the nature and character of the King. Seeing that he is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story I was left a little disappointed. Also, maybe I’m being petty, but I am really annoyed that we never find out if one particular minor character survived or not. At the same time, however, I loved how some of the most seminal and important events in the plot had nothing to do with the King and his opponents, but rather the simple human evils going on amongst the townsfolk. To me, this added a whole new layer of richness and humanity to the story.

What small annoyances I had cannot not detract from an overall remarkable experience. Goodwater has previously paddled the waters of magic realism, but in The Liar of Red Valley he plunges headfirst into the depths of the gothic and comes up with treasure. This is a wonderful story set in a fascinating world populated with likable and realistic characters, and I enjoyed almost every moment of my time spent reading it. Red Valley is a dangerous town, but danged if it’s not a fun place to visit.

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