BOOK REVIEW: Sunset Mantle

Author: Alter S. Reiss

Publisher: Tor.com

Published: 15 September 2015

sunset mantle book cover

With a single blow, Cete won both honour and exile from his last commander. Since then he has wandered, looking for a place to call home. The distant holdings of the Reach Antach offer shelter, but that promise has a price.

The Reach Antach is doomed.

Barbarians, traitors, and scheming investors conspire to destroy the burgeoning settlement. A wise man would move on, but Cete has found reason to stay. A blind weaver-woman and the beautiful sunset mantle lure the warrior to wager everything he has left on one final chance to turn back the hungry tides of war.

The third release in Tor.com’s novella series is another fantasy, but rather than the dream-like fairy tale of Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, or the modern fantasy of The Witches of Lychford, Sunset Mantle is almost more of a fable which reminds us of both the difficulty and importance of doing the right thing.

It’s a familiar story in the lines of Zulu, Lord of the Rings, or even 300. When Cete thwarts his commander Radan’s plan to use him as a political pawn, he makes an enemy which it is clear will last until one of them dies. Cete chooses this path for the sake of honour, despite knowing that in doing so he risks the appearance of dishonour, execution and his life. To paraphrase The Hunger Games, the odds are most assuredly not in his favour. Eventually, this decision leads to Radan bringing an overwhelming fighting force of trained soldiers and tribesmen against the Reach Antarch, while Cete commands troops made up of shopkeepers and their wives. Together they must hold the line against Radan, or lose everything.

While the overall arc may be one we’ve seen or read before, the world and its characters are what make Sunset Mantle really stand out. The Reach Antarch is an incredibly detailed character in of itself. It has very set laws and traditions which are almost Biblical in their old-fashioned, black-and-white morality; through Cete, we gradually learn about the intricacies of its politics and religion, and the Reach Antarch is brought to life.

Cete himself is unusual warrior and protagonist. On the face of it, simply another seasoned veteran, he’s also deeply principled and willing to sacrifice his reputation for the greater good, in the knowledge that everyone in the land will actively shun him as a result. However, he is far from stupid – if anything, he is a little too smart for his own good, with a gift for strategy.

However, Marelle is the real highlight of Sunset Mantle. She’s a remarkably strong character and not in the obvious physical sense, but mentally and emotionally resilient. Despite her blindness (which in this land would have put her with the outcasts outside the main city walls) she is totally self-sufficient and has successfully supported herself by producing beautiful garments. She’s both determined and pro-active, leaving the sense that even without Cete she would be a force to be reckoned with, while he without her would have suffered. Cete’s weaknesses are that he can be reckless and prone to vengefulness, and Marelle counterbalances this with cool-headed, practical advice. It’s a shame that her history isn’t explored in as much depth as Cete’s – she’s a very unusual woman to find anywhere but especially in this extremely traditional land.

As is only fitting for an unusual couple, they have what their neighbours would consider to be an unusual relationship, with Marelle deviating from the more submissive, supportive role expected of wives in their culture, and Cete caring for her the more for it. He does not treat her as a helpless thing to be protected – she is important to him, but he respects her dignity and strength, and when she wants to fight by his side against Radan and his forces, he simply teaches her how to stand with a spear in her hand.

Cete and Marelle are the kind of characters on which legends are built; not just honourable and courageous themselves, but inspiring honour and courage in those around them. Sunset Mantle is a mini epic.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Michaela Gray

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