DiscoverFantasy

Liars Called

By Stephan Morse

Worth reading 😎

Alternately brilliant and mind-boggling, Liars Called is a complex adventure story that never quite lives up to its opening chapters.

Synopsis

Abandoned by his father, too proud to ask his brother for help, and lured by the promise of money, Lance gets on a bus that mysteriously appears outside his house in the middle of the night.

It brings him and others to a dream-like land where anything can be bought and sold, even magic. When he returns home, he finds his family has changed, the world has moved on, and monsters from faerie tales overrun the town.

Survival is paramount—but everything has a price.

Liars Called is not an easy book to review — and it's not an easy book to read.


Author Stephan Morse begins his story with one of the more compelling opening sequences I've read in a while: Lance Hawthorn Underwood, currently undergoing physical therapy after a near-debilitating car accident, is invited to board a mysterious bus. (We follow this story through Lance's journals, which include additional notes and corrections. An excellent way to keep the reader hooked.)


Once on the bus, a creature with pointed teeth gives him some advice:


Heed the clues. The bold are quickest to die. The fearful die almost as fast. A clever man may be tempted to lie, and also die. But to survive, one must be a little of all three.


Each passenger is given a "debt card" and told that everything has a price, and for the first third of the novel we follow Lance as he learns how this new world works, how to use his debt card, and what "the bold are quickest to die" actually means.


However, the remaining two thirds of the novel never stand up to the brilliance of the opening. Once Lance understands the basic mechanics of the world, the story devolves into an extended Dungeons and Dragons session, in which characters who literally identify themselves as "the tank" and "the healer" (Lance is, of course, the rogue) slash at monsters for pages on end.


Lance repeatedly comments on the derivative nature of this world, wondering why his current situation so closely resembles D&D and video games. By the end of the book, we understand that Lance might get an answer to his question in the sequel — but many readers might not make it that far.


If I could review the opening six chapters on their own, Liars Called would get five stars.

Reviewed by

Writer, editor, and teacher. I review one book a week at NicoleDieker.com as part of my daily posts on the art and the finances of a creative career. Am interested in books on writing and publishing, literary fiction, and SF&F.

Synopsis

Abandoned by his father, too proud to ask his brother for help, and lured by the promise of money, Lance gets on a bus that mysteriously appears outside his house in the middle of the night.

It brings him and others to a dream-like land where anything can be bought and sold, even magic. When he returns home, he finds his family has changed, the world has moved on, and monsters from faerie tales overrun the town.

Survival is paramount—but everything has a price.

Establish Boundaries & Do Your Homework

Statement: I feel that much of this won’t make sense without some shared baseline. This means my first order of business is to explain who I am and what has happened. Logically, most information about my past is pointless; save for that which clearly affects prime motivations. I will share a brief bit of my situation prior to ‘The Event’, as it impacts all results after the fact.

Would the events listed herein have occurred without the car accident? Would knowing make a difference in my choices? Would avoiding an accident in the first place, but being part of ‘The Event’, result in a better outcome? This sounds possible, but I’ve survived where others, undamaged, have not.

Three months ago, I’d been in a car accident. The short version of the results is as follows; all passengers in the car with me walked away with minor bumps and bruises. I lost part of my foot, broke seven bones, and tore muscles in my arm and hip. This is due to the other party failing to slow down and turning into me. In exchange, I gained a wheelchair, crutches for easier days, and money that only existed in theory. Insurance had not paid out.

On this day, I needed to limp into my physical therapy appointment. As I wished not to bother my brother, I called a county service then arranged a door-to-door bus with wheelchair access. Taking the bus allowed me a small measure of independence.

At two in the afternoon, I waited on the corner. The bus was late. At two-twenty it arrived and lowered a ramp for me to roll up. I wheeled on. This may seem trivial, but I took a small amount of pride in being able to move the wheelchair without assistance.

A man smiled at me. He wore faded clothes, a dark cap, and two pins displaying the golden with red mixture representing the 49ers. Blond hair poked out from under the cap he continued to fidget with.

“Welcome aboard,” the driver said. “I’m Leon. I’ll be driving you today.”

I nodded to the driver, turned, and briefly studied my companions. Two older ladies sat in the best seats.

“Yeah, just watch the corners,” said the one on the right. The giant of a woman coughed wetly and swallowed. This disgusted me.

The more heavyset one had loosely hanging skin and smelled like cigars. Her thinner partner lay back in the seat and snored. The one awake didn’t move to make room for my wheelchair. I checked the bus driver for assistance. 

He shrugged. “What can you do? There’s enough room for the chair over here, I’ll help you bolt it in.” He unbuckled himself, got out of the driver’s side and walked around.

The physical therapist advised me that a near full recovery might be possible. Right now, I could barely hop from one seat to another. Switching spots while disabled was one of the first tasks they taught me during rehabilitation. Technically, wheelchairs were meant to be support objects since my legs were partially functional.

Post Note: I used to be able to run. I played disc toss at college between classes. Post-accident, I was told my hip would always hurt and running will be agony. Furthermore, they also said at some point I may need to replace the hip.

Leon was kind enough. I fumbled around with buckles and loops to help anchor the wheelchair into place. Leon checked the ends twice. His hat slipped off, revealing a bald circle on top of his head.

“Make sure he double-checks,” the woman with phlegm in her throat said. “He’s new. They don’t train them right.”

Her companion continued to snore.

“You’re as secure as I can get,” Leon commented while shaking his head. He scanned the front seats of our small bus, exited the vehicle through the still extended ramp, and got back in. We left the neighborhood and hit every pothole between my house and the main street.

The bus stopped suddenly. My head slammed into a rack of bus schedules. I groaned.

“Ought to sue the county. These drivers are crap,” the large woman muttered. The driver grunted in response. Our old companion snored.

“Sorry, everyone, the light suddenly changed,” Leon said.

“Sure, blame the light. Or maybe it’s because you’re hungover.” The bus resumed motion as she coughed wetly and wiped her face. 

The driver either didn’t hear her or chose not to rise to an obvious insult.

Our bus ride went on for an hour. I drifted in and out due to medication. It made me sleepy and the doctors gave me less with each refill. I stretched the pills thin in case. The phlegm-coughing woman got off at a supermarket, parting with a “Shitty driver” comment. Our snoring companion left at a government building downtown. I arrived ten minutes late for my physical therapy appointment.

“Mister Underwood, we’re here,” Leon said.

I nodded and worked on loosening the straps holding me in. Some were too difficult to get and required the driver’s help. Once free, I wheeled off but gave the driver no parting message. The man’s tardiness bothered me.

Leon was older than me but not beyond thirty. He wore a wedding ring and had bags under his eyes. I suspected he worked himself silly but also had to stay up nights. It was not likely to be due to drinking.

Thinking about the driver kept me safe while wheeling into the building. I signed a check-in sheet and got myself ready for a few rounds of torture. The jacket came off. My knee brace rattled against the wheelchair. Each motion resulted in a tweak of pain.

“Hey, Lance, how long have you been waiting?” a physical therapist asked. 

“Three minutes,” I answered.

Post Note: My full name is Lance Hawthorn Underwood. My parents couldn’t have picked a more phallic name if they’d tried. Crataegus (Hawthorn) comes from the Greek kratos (strength) and akis (sharp). This does not help my phallic name, or my impression of my parents’ foresight.

Admission: It did assist in getting laid during the final year of high school. “Hercules” is a good nickname; despite it being about my–as of this moment–temporarily unusable ‘junk.’

I didn’t know my physical therapist’s name. He weighed more than a fitness instructor should. It bothered me. My body never filled out like my older brother’s. He adapted well to muscle while I ‘slunk around.’ These were observations made by my brother’s wife. She bothered me as well.

Thirty minutes later, after exercises that wore me out, I lay on a cushioned bed while the overweight physical therapist worked on my leg. It hurt each time he stretched my leg, not a lot, but enough to make my bladder jump. Peeing would have delayed our session by at least ten more minutes and the bus driver would likely be early to pick me up.

“Have you lined up a therapist?” he asked. “You told me you needed to find one.” 

“Yes,” I said mechanically. The hospital gave me a list of objectives to accomplish and none of them were simple. There were forms, websites, and endless pamphlets full of positive messages that bored me senseless.

Post Note: I had not found a therapist for my mental health. I do not believe in psychiatric medicine. If I am unable to figure out my own problems, then anything a therapist states will be pure speculation. I do not like needing help.

“Good. Recovery isn’t easy, especially when you’ve got so many spots to work on. How’s your arm?” 

“Functional,” I said.

“The stretches?”

“I do them every day. They hurt. I do them anyway.”

“Be careful not to push yourself. If it hurts, stop there. We’re trying to ease into recovery. Pushing too hard will cause more damage if you’re not careful.”

I nodded.

A dozen other people were in the room. Each of them had been broken in some fashion. One woman wore braces on both knees. She limped around better than I could. She peeled an orange that tainted the air with its spicy smell.

The therapist prodded me both verbally and physically. Muscles were stretched slowly as he struggled to “improve blood flow in damaged areas.” He spoke about sports, muscle structure, and movies. I played his silly game and engaged in conversation with the same calm detachment. In the lulls between topics I studied the other patients and wondered which of us were better off.

Doctors stated that younger people bounced back quicker with fewer complications. Their words did not fill me with confidence. The pills did not help. Painkillers lowered my appetite, resulting in additional weight loss, which slowed recovery since I couldn’t build muscles. The longer my condition wore on, the more I learned about how complicated a human body could truly be.

We were a nightmare of muscles, nerves, blood, and bone. Studying online medical journals kept me up at night. There were too many names to properly memorize given my mental delays from drugs. I reviewed pictures and video files. It helped to compare common condition results to my own.

“All right, we’re all set,” the overweight man massaging my leg said. He removed pads, which used electrical currents as stimulation, from my thigh. “Are you coming back tomorrow?”

His unprofessional attitude bothered me. An effective employee would be able to reference a simple schedule. I assisted his memory and nodded. Recovery, per the doctor, required three visits a week. Due to limitations, two visits were done in a row.

I stumbled on a crutch back to my wheelchair. Moving my legs, sitting down, and bending to check my knee brace all hurt. A glance at the time showed me there were two hours before the next round of pills. After that, I should be able to drift in and out comfortably until exhaustion put me down. Each day, theoretically, brought me closer to recovery.

One of the front desk women waved me down at the door. “Mister Underwood?”

Leon, the same bus driver from before, sat outside waiting for me. I saw his face through layers of clear glass. I turned my wheelchair around to face the woman.

“What is it?”

“Have you had an opportunity to check with your insurance?”

My insurance came from work. Work had let me go since this was an ‘at will’ state. They were allowed to release me whenever they wished without explanation. My insurance should be picked up by other sources due to a universal health care law. I understood my own wounds far better than the legalities behind this entire process.

“Yes. I’m trying to figure out the correct coverage. Send me the bill and I will have it paid,” I said.

The hospital provided a helpline for low income individuals who needed someone to hold their hand. I had not called them yet, either. Such necessary actions slipped away from me. My analytical nature didn’t include a sense of urgency. The hospital provided a pamphlet which explained that as well. They had assistance connections for everything.

“All right. I’ll call the insurance company again to make sure everything is accurate. Chrissy should have it ready for you tomorrow when you come in.” She smiled and waved goodbye.

I pressed the door assistance button and waited for it to open. Leon lowered the bus ramp. The beeping drove my brain into retreat. My head dipped to stare at another patient’s feet through the window to my right. That woman with her oranges paced slowly. Her feet were functional, but each step made her wince.

I wished to close my eyes and wake in the morning, finding all these wounds were simply a dream. I desired to glance down and find my foot whole once more. That was impossible, but hopeful denial made each morning absolute terror.

“Hello again. The left seat is open if you want it.”

I nodded and wheeled on. The sleeping woman from before must have finished her business at the government building. She sat on the right side, sleeping. We continued in silence while my thoughts bent toward a mental checklist. There were too many topics I’d put off from denied depression. The bus dropped me off first. The beeping stirred me out of the fumbled list. Medication and throbbing pain were distracting.

I pushed myself off the bus and then headed back to the family home. My cell phone rang. I paused at the door and dug through my wheelchair pack for the delicate object. The ring tone went with my brother’s phone number.

Post Note: The cell phone also survived the car accident unhurt.

For two rings, I contemplated letting it roll to voice mail. He cared. We only had each other, at least in terms of family. Mother passed away two years before from cancer. Our father was overseas on an ‘around-the-world’ tour. Dad had not called once since the accident.

The ringing got to be too much. “Hello.”

“Little L, I thought you were ignoring me still.” My brother’s voice was light but strong. He raised it to be heard over a crying baby in the background. That was Stella, she was six months old and loud.

“I was tempted,” I said while using my other hand to open the front door. 

“Just getting home?”

“Correct.”

“You know dad’s really happy you’re using the place, right?” 

“No,” I said.

“Dad still hasn’t called you?” 

“Correct.”

He barely qualified as a father at this point. He had become distant since Mom passed, which hurt us all in different ways. Richard, perhaps, was the luckiest one. My brother had a wife and kids.

I had a girlfriend. Now, I did not. I didn’t even have Kent, my father, around to help.

“Jesus,” Richard said. His name was as bad as mine. I assumed our father had a perverse sense of humor. “He said he was coming home this weekend. Not sure why he wouldn’t at least call you once to tell you.”

“Maybe he wanted to surprise me.”

The inside of this house would be too messy for my dad. I’d been a terrible housekeeper, saved only by a general lack of desire for food. There were dirty clothes to wash but getting into the garage required going down a step and over bumpy pavement. I’d tackle that first.

My brother asked all sorts of nonsense about my current status while I wheeled around to clean up the place. By the time he wound to the end of our conversation my shoulders and ear hurt nearly as much as the rest of me.

“Rich, I have to take my pills.”

“Oh,” he said. His word drifted away as if distracted. My niece made gurgling noises that were hard to make out. One of my nephews was shouting about food with the self-absorbed tone only an eight-year-old could have.

“Are you still praying?”

I lied. “Yes.” Prayers were further from my mind with each day. Helping people get home safely had cost me. I firmly believed any God who rewarded good deeds with physical punishment was an asshole.

“That’s good. And you be careful with those pills. They’re habit-forming and doctors say they cloud the mind. I don’t want—”

“I’m doing okay. I’m performing the exercises my therapist orders. Dad’s house is still standing. I have not ordered a pizza, even once.”

“What about work?”

“I will find a job once my life has settled down. Unemployment will cover me until then. You are my brother, but not my keeper. Please focus on your children first and foremost. I will be okay.”

He snorted in amusement. “Listen, you little shit—”

“I’m not little.” He was shorter than me by two inches. Richard grew out with muscles while I got our dad’s height.

“You’re a bean pole. Still. Once you get better, I’ll start picking you up for the gym. You can go with me. There’s a yoga class in the afternoon. The ladies there, my goodness. Some of them give a man thoughts, you know?”

“There’s a what class?” my brother’s wife, Violet, shouted loud enough to be heard. She and Richard had met in a gym as well. At least, that’s how their story went. Married straight out of high school then promptly had three children.

“Darn it. All right, I’ll let you go. I’ve stepped in it now and need to do damage control.”

The clothes were hard to lift off the ground. It took three attempts to get the small basket up to my lap. The prior round of painkillers had mostly faded.

“I wish you luck,” I said while checking the time on a microwave. It was late enough that another dose of pills wouldn’t hurt me. The doctors and pharmacy people were very insistent about how much to take in a day.

“Yeah, yeah. And maybe one of these—” My brother’s tone dipped slightly.

“What were you saying?” Violet’s volume increased. Her footsteps creaked loud enough to be heard through the phone. “What yoga class?”

Richard’s words rushed. “Look. God may say no children out of wedlock but talking to a girl might help. There’s this one—”

“This one what?” Violet said.

“Anyway, Little L, we’ll hit the gym once you feel better. Exercise can help stabilize someone’s mood. Right? When you get better—” The phone clicked off.

My brother’s words were intended to be positive but left me feeling pale instead. My body had essentially been crippled and constant hip pain would make copulation difficult at best. Being invested in spending time with another person would never happen in the short term. Not this month, not next, or even the next year.

“It’s fine,” I said to the empty house. I pulled the pills out of a pouch on my wheelchair, pushed myself to the sink, got water from the one cup not in a cabinet, and wheeled to bed.

My body heaved in a large sigh. I lifted the latest pain management dosage and swallowed back the pills. The afternoon sun hit the shades just right, casting an orange glow over the room. I wondered about using the computer to do more research, calling around for financial aid, and waiting for the drugs to wash away my pain.

“It will all be okay,” I said to an empty room. “I need time to heal. That’s all.”

The silence in response didn’t bother me. Since my accident, I preferred being alone. After all, driving home drunk friends is what caused this physical damage. They pretended to care, but each one of them had this expression on their face, a twitch in their mouths and ears, plus avoiding eye contact; they were ashamed. I was willing to bet they were happy they’d gotten off so lightly.

For their reminders and part in the accident, I hated them. Pity or shameful glances were not helpful. They didn’t cause the other man to crash into us, but by the same token, I wouldn’t have been out there if not for them. Their feelings did not make my body suddenly work.

“I’ll heal from this. I need time.” My self-assurances were useless. Both shoulders stayed bunched until the drugs kicked in. I climbed into a pile of blankets on the bed and hoped for sleep.

It did not come easily.

About the author

Stephan Morse was born the year 1983 in San Diego. The next fifteen years were spent slowly escaping California and surviving a public education system. Thus far he's made it to the Seattle (WA) region with little desire to go further. view profile

Published on February 26, 2019

90000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Fantasy

Reviewed by

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