Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor.com (September 15, 2015)
Length: 192 pages
My Rating: 4 stars
Another of Tor.com’s impressive novellas, Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss is a complex, beautifully written tale of an outcast warrior who finds a home and companion in a city doomed to destruction. The political machinations, personal relationships, battle scenes, and concise world building infused in this narrative combining together to create a tale epic in scope yet with a feeling of intense intimacy; all done in less than two hundred pages.
Cete is a disgraced warrior, cast out from his homeland for following his conscious. Wandering into Reach Antach (A new colony still bound to its founding city by ties of blood and trade.), his intention is to do his business then leave due to his unerring feeling that the Reach is doomed. However, a beautiful cloak and the blind woman, Marelle, who crafted it causes Cete to follow another path, resulting in his joining the Reach’s military and quickly finding himself unwittingly embroiled in the schemes of various factions within (and without) the city. His personal journey leading him to both pyrrhic victories, deep despair, and personal triumphs, as this lone man tries to protect the city and people he has grown to love and cherish.
After finishing Sunset Mantle, I was torn on exactly what rating to give it. On one hand, the condensed epic scope of the narrative dazzled me with its amazing handling of intrigue, world building, and characterization; Reiss wasting no words or time in unerringly creating a magnificent world and intriguing people to populate it. Yet, on the other hand, there was an unsatisfied feeling lingering at the back of my mind, caused by the number of significant events which transpired outside my view, only revealed to me by the mentions of certain characters. A situation which I intellectual understood from a standpoint of this being a novella, but which emotionally my reading side could not accept. Eventually, my fondness for Cete, his story, and this world silenced the negative voices in my head (Yes, I do have them!), resulting in the 4 star rating.
What might surprise many people is my favorite aspect of this novella was not the world building, which I have mentioned several times already, or the battle scenes, or even the politics, but the evolution of Cete and Marelle’s relationship. This romantic union not merely one of physical attraction but also mutual respect and absolute trust between partners. Neither of them the master of the other, but each one part of a whole; both their focuses on supporting and counseling the other through dangerous times, lending support and strength even when they did not completely agree with the other’s decisions. This unexpected and healthy relationship a pleasant surprise, which lent this fantasy story a very mature feeling.
My least favorite aspect of Sunset Mantle would have to be the blistering pace of the story and the quick turns in our character’s fortunes. Truly, Cete’s star in Reach Antach rises and falls, then rises and falls again at such a pace as to make one’s head spin. Perhaps such huge peaks and valleys in personal fortune are entirely plausible, but they seemed rushed and somewhat forced at times here, certainly necessary to keep the momentum going in the limited page count yet not always fully justified in my opinion. A small criticism on my part, to be sure, but a feeling which I retained after careful contemplation.
No matter its flaws, there is a certain intangible quality to Sunset Mantle which makes it special. Yes, the main characters are compelling, and, certainly, the epic scope of such a concise novella is praiseworthy, but for me personally, I believe the emotional tug of a man willing to die for a woman and his adopted home is what set this story apart for me. Perhaps it is an antiquated and old-fashioned notion, but I like to believe at times that love will truly overlook hate, goodness triumph over evilness, and with Sunset Mantle, Alter S. Reiss reminded me of those deeply held beliefs and tugged on my heart strings. And that is why I’d encourage all my reading friends to give this novella a try.