Carolyn Cushman Reviews The Liar of Red Valley and The Last Graduate

Walter Goodwater, The Liar of Red Valley (Solaris 978-1-78108-911-8, $24.99, 359pp, hc) September 2021.

Red Valley, a dying town in rural California, pro­vides the colorful backdrop for this twisted dark fantasy novel. Sadie lives an outsider’s life as the daughter of the town’s Liar, but then her mother dies. Suddenly, Sadie learns she has to be the Liar, only her mother never told her how to take people’s lies, the ones they want to be true, and make them come true. One of the three big rules of Red Valley is ‘‘Do not trust the Liar,’’ and now it’s Sadie’s turn to find out why, from the inside. It’s fun watching stubborn Sadie deal as she gets dumped in the middle of some scary stuff, start­ing with a mundane sheriff’s deputy running for election, determined to rid the town of magic and the rule of the mysterious King. ‘‘Do not cross the King’’ is another of the rules, and no one does, or even sees him; his business is all handled by men in mirrorshades who are somehow more than hu­man, and breaking the King’s rules can be deadly. Then there’s the Laughing Boys, who instead of doing drugs like most teens, get their thrills from letting demons into their heads. Other oddities keep turning up; every time you think you know what’s going on, a new lie is revealed, or an old mystery, or a horrible truth. Sadie’s not going to let anything stop her from figuring it all out, and following her search for answers she might be able to live with makes for an entertaining and creepy ride.

Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate (Del Rey 978-0-593-12886-2, $28.00, 388pp, hc) September 2021. Cover by Jeff Miller.

The second book in the Scholomance trilogy about a deadly magic school, The Last Gradu­ate does suffer somewhat from middle-book syndrome, along with a title that’s more than a little spoilerish. It’s almost impossible to discuss the novel without spoilers as it is. This isn’t a good place for new readers to just jump in; unless you start out expecting malign and nastily petty behavior from the Scholomance, the twists that keep coming aren’t going to have much impact. On the other hand, starting fresh will spare read­ers from the repetitive exposition – and where A Deadly Education offered lots of colorful little incidents to make it clear how truly horrible the school is, this volume tends more towards general observations, summing up things like vicious training exercises in a line or two, just naming one or two of the deadly creatures (mals) involved, or a particularly nasty obstacle. What really counts this time around isn’t the individual encounters, but what snarky narrator El (short for Galadriel) starts to figure out about them, and what the other students realize about El when the potentially lethal group training forces her to really let loose in public. It’s still fun watching this over-powered potential dark sorceress try to convince people she hasn’t gone over to the dark side while incinerating everything in her path, and even more intriguing to speculate on what she’ll do once it’s all over.

Carolyn F. Cushman, Senior Editor, has worked for Locus since 1985, the longest of any of the current staff, and handles our in-house books database, writes our New and Notable section, and does the monthly Books Received column. She is a graduate of Western Washington University with a degree in English. She published a fantasy novel, Witch and Wombat, in 1994.

This review and more like it in the November 2021 issue of Locus.

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