Sunset Mantle is about Cete, a warrior whose choice to do the right thing was both lauded and earned him political exile. A career soldier, Cete is the wrong side of youth and painfully aware that the best way to survive is to do the only thing he knows how to; fight. The Reach Antach, a remote holding, is exactly the sort of community he needs. There’s just one problem; it’s doomed.
We spend Sunset Mantle looking at the world from Cete’s point of view. Reiss does an excellent job of drilling down to the elemental, instinctive threat assessment that defines his lead’s life and gives us subtle, constant insight into his character as a result. Cete is a veteran, a man who has no problem with death or pain beyond his growing awareness of the consequences of both. He’s not quite an aging gunslinger, although there’s an element of that to the character and the story’s topography. Rather, Cete is one of Death’s colleagues, a man who is used to the idea of a sudden, violent end and has made his peace with it.
The thing about peace though, is how bad some soldiers can be at it.
Cete, the Reach Antach and Reiss all spend the entire book with a siege mentality. Cete is an outsider, later even more of one, in a community that has dared to do something different and is completely unprepared for the price it’s about to pay. Cete has made his peace with death, the Reach has not and as the novella goes on that’s the central conflict that Reiss focuses on. The Reach’s one hope is a man who has not so much lost all hope as simply put it down for a weapon that fits his hand better. That struggle is what powers some of the most subtle, clever worldbuilding you’ll see this year as Reiss uses Cete’s awareness and experience to map out the battle that very few Reach residents have noticed being fought. This is one of the most carefully constructed, political pieces of fantasy fiction I’ve read in a long time as well as one of the more brutal. The two combine in Cete, a man who is aware of everything other than the possibility he might win. His world view is quiet, humble and at times, profoundly moving.
Especially when he meets Marelle, the blind weaver who he is married to, then falls in love with. She could so easily have been an agency-free piece of scenery. Instead she’s fiercely loyal, perceptive and the part of Cete’s life he didn’t realize was missing. The book’s best sequences come after Cete is punished, again, for doing the right thing and the pair set up house outside the walls of the Reach. Cete’s enemies know exactly where he is and the threat he poses and their lives are under constant threat. Neither of them ever talk about this openly, but neither of them back away from it. The resulting, careful discussions are funny, tense and poignant. Two battered, cautious people on the outskirts of society refusing to look the courage needed to fight back in the eye, even as they use it.
But where Marelle really comes into her own is in the social element of the book. She understands the Reach and its people in a way Cete doesn’t. She understands Cete in a way he can’t, and she’s a vital part of the Reach’s defence because of that. The final battle is unbearably tense and a huge part of that is Marelle’s refusal to be absent from it. She may not be able to see, but she has the vision Cete lacks and together the two are extraordinarily strong. A relationship of equals, defined by courtesy, respect and gentle, chiding humour. They’re the beating heart of both the Reach and the novella.
Reiss has done something extraordinary here. He’s wrapped a romance around a military story, a western and a surprising, nuanced look at small town life to create a fantasy novella that trusts you to figure its world out, even as its lead character is doing the same thing. Grim, gripping and another fantastic entry in Tor’s novella line.
Join me on Monday for an interview with the author, Alter S. Reiss