Sunset Mantle: Two takes on this short epic fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss fantasy book reviews novellaSunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss

One of the discoveries I made this year about my reading preferences was that I really enjoy shorter reads. It may have been because the behemoth volumes typical of fantasy series made me sceptical that you could, gasp, actually tell a good story that would leave me satisfied in fewer pages, but I am glad now that I am actively looking for stories that I would have otherwise neglected to take into consideration. Alter S. ReissSunset Mantle is one of those stories which I would have missed were I to only read doorstoppers, and it reinforces my love for shorter works because Sunset Mantle is a fantastic book.

Cete is a veteran with decades of experience in the art of warmaking. Pragmatic and honest to a fault, he was exiled from his home for having slain his leader after he was taken by the madding, a sort of war lust that clouds one’s judgment and turns people into blood-seeking berserkers. Cete holds no grudges against those who exiled him, for he is smart enough to know that it was what had to be done by those in charge, but he is left now with the charge of having to procure a contract into a fighting company without any of the safeguards of belonging to a clan. He is utterly alone when he arrives at Reach Antach, and he soon learns, after attending a religious service, that Reach Antach is doomed.

The Antach of the Antach, one of the leaders of Reach Antach and the head of the Antach clan, has a remarkable resemblance to the leader of the White Horn tribe, and when Cete realizes that this most likely means they are brothers, he knows the city clans will not abide having one of the Reaches forming an alliance with the tribes. Cete decides then to abandon Reach Antach, but when he discovers a gorgeous mantle of exquisite craftsmanship in the shop of a blind lady, he decides to stay so that the woman Marelle might finish his own commission for a new, beautiful mantle.

Cete is without a doubt one of the strongest things about Sunset Mantle. Very observant of his surroundings and fiercely intelligent, he is the type of character that would behave similarly were he dealing with a soldier or with the leader of a nation. He is loyal to those he commands and doesn’t believe that their lives are interchangeable and fit to be thrown into suicide missions for meagre gains, and his honour may sometimes cost him dearly; for Cete, such is the price of living a life truly worthwhile. He finds in Marelle a partner not unlike himself, and in their union will come to rest the very future of Reach Antach.

Much of the marketing buzz surrounding Sunset Mantle bills it as a mini-epic fantasy, an epic fantasy without the hundreds of pages of expository world-building and the usual trappings of the genre that makes it so propitious for a story to be told in multiple volumes, but for my money Sunset Mantle is more sword and sorcery than epic fantasy. An argument could be made successfully about the line between the two genres being sufficiently blurred for the distinction to be pedantic, but I do think that it reads more like a sword and sorcery story than an epic fantasy one. A more accurate way to describe it would be to call it a sword and sorcery story embedded in an epic fantasy tapestry. This is, of course, not a critique but an observation, for if you haven’t realized by now, I really enjoyed Sunset Mantle.

It was also refreshing to find that the romantic relationship between Cete and Marelle was a mature one, where each saw the other as a full person and knew themselves to be whole. They love each other, go to each other looking for guidance about what ails them, but if one contradicts the other about some issue the other doesn’t raise hell on earth about some perceived malfeasance against their “loved one”. In a way it’s a rational relationship, which isn’t a word usually associated with romantic love but which I find to be the best compliment I can give about the way Reiss handles their relationship.

Were there betting markets on which new authors will become big in the field, and were I a betting man, I would put my money on Alter S. Reiss. There’s something commendable about managing to tell so good and thoughtful a story in what amounts to a novella, and though at times I thought it was too easy for Cete to reach certain conclusions with so little information available to him, his grizzly, worn-down, but honourable and honest behaviour made him a character one could look up to and try to be like, in mind-set if not in action (unfortunately my sword technique is a little rusty and I never really did like blood). I wholeheartedly recommend you pick up Sunset Mantle, and I hope to read more in the future from Alter S. Reiss.

~João Eira


Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss fantasy book reviews novellaI’m totally in agreement with João about shorter works and, like him, I love how Alter S. Reiss decided to condense an epic fantasy into a single novella. That’s a great concept and I commend this choice. I also agree with many of the other points João makes about Sunset Mantle, especially what he said about the mature relationship between the protagonists.

I liked Sunset Mantle, but not quite as much as João did. I think that’s because this is a “character-driven” story and I simply didn’t spend enough time with Cete and Marelle to really develop the knowledge about, and affection for, them that I needed to thoroughly enjoy it. I feel that, with more time (i.e., page count), I would have. 

Which just goes to show, I think, that for many epic fantasies, it’s the relationship with the characters that keeps me reading. I’m thinking of FitzChivalry and Simon, for example. That kind of relationship is nearly impossible to build in less than 200 pages and if the characters are the focus of the story (in contrast to new ideas, speculations about the future, consideration of ethical questions, etc) it’s going to feel a little thin.

I can’t wait to see what Alter S. Reiss does next. 

~Kat Hooper

Publication Date: September 15, 2015. With a single blow, Cete won both honor 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.

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JOÃO EIRA, one of our guests, is a student at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, one of the oldest universities in the world, where he studies Physics and Economics. Having spent his formative years living in the lush vistas of Middle Earth and the barren nothingness in a galaxy far far away, he has grown to love filling his decreasing empty bookshelf space with fantasy and science fiction books. For him a book’s utmost priority should be the story it is trying to tell, though he can forgive some mistakes if its characters are purposeful and the worldbuilding imaginative. A book with no story can have no redeeming quality though. João probably spends more time fantasizing about books than doing productive things.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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4 comments

  1. sounds good–especially that length! Sometimes now as I gaze at the thick tomes on my shelves, the bookstore shelves, coming in the mail, or when I see the 551 or 498 or 764 page numbers on Amazon, I just sigh.

  2. This sounds really interesting–thanks, João! I hope more authors take the cue to write with brevity and purpose, rather than overstuffing their books into 1000-page monsters.

  3. This one passed under my radar when it was first announced, but Reiss’ piece on “Getting the Archaeology Right in Fantasy Fiction” for TOR really caught my eye and got me excited.

  4. I am SOOOOO into novellas right now!

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