Bite-size Books: Sunset Mantle

Book cover: Sunset Mantle - Alter Reiss (spectacular moody scene of a warrior looking down on a battlefield)Cete was a clan general until he killed his berserk lord, earning acclaim and exile at one stroke. Now he’s drawn to cast in his lot with a new settlement aspiring to independence – even though he’s certain it’s doomed…

Sunset Mantle is one of those novellas that works so hard and with such intensity that by the time you finish it you’re pretty certain you read a book: an epic fantasy packed into 200 pages. I got off to a rocky start, though. The first couple of chapters are a little bewildering, full of plot-relevant assertions that lack context and plot-convenient decisions that are questionable, to say the least.

We meet Cete in the markets of Reach Antach, entranced by a finely embroidered mantle (the eponymous sunset mantle). He desperately wants this fine thing in his life, but all he has to trade is the silver merit chain he was awarded for his final service to his clan; a chain that has no value to a weaver beyond its weight in silver, but that ensures his future as a warrior. The chain symbolises his skill and – more importantly – his honour, making him a safe hire in spite of being cast out by his clan.

But to earn enough money to commission a cloak as fine as this one, he’ll need to stay in Reach Antach. A chance observation has convinced him that the Reach’s days are numbered. Staying means winning a place in its army and putting his life on the line against an overwhelming force. The best he can hope for is to be one of the few left standing in defeat – and the odds will not be in his favour.

…but he really wants that cloak.

It’s fair to say I had suspension of disbelief issues at the outset. I couldn’t quite buy into a character who was being presented as worldly and insightful also being flighty enough to sell his life over a good cloak. Nor could I believe that he would agree to a price that would – by his own admission – buy him a house. Even by 2020 wealth inequality measures, that’s bonkers; and Cete doesn’t have that sort of disposable income. Although given he doesn’t expect to live to wear his cloak, arguably he’s just putting a down payment on a dream.

But in between my eye-rolling at Cete’s ill-advised attachment to fine fabrics, Alter S Reiss was doing a fine job of shading in an intriguing Mediterranean setting. This is a world of olive groves and apricots, defined by customs (I loved the scene where Cete reads a situation from how he is offered tea) and contracts. City clans control wealth and marauding tribes threaten it; a Reach is founded with City money and must repay the investment with interest …and by extension, where a city is highly motivated to ensure a Reach doesn’t repay its debts early and cut off a major revenue stream. It is often painfully patriarchal and harshly ableist – and yet its strict laws are open to interpretation.

Arguably, much of the novella is spent challenging the world’s structural ableism by keeping Marelle the blind weaver at the heart of the story. She is a mistress of her art, respected within her community and – when the day finally comes – as determined to fight for her home as any of her fully-sighted neighbours. Reach Antach is prepared to challenge conventions as well as city rule. Her commitment to her city is razor-sharp, with any sacrifice acceptable if it turns the tide.

Cete challenges other expectations built into the world: an exile who behaves with honour (if not always obedience), who repeatedly puts his life on the line out of loyalty to his adopted cause – and for a people who will not protect him. If there’s a shade of the hero they need, not the hero they deserve, I didn’t really mind: Cete is my kind of stubborn badass, a hero almost by accident by virtue of his sheer bloody-mindedness.

While I can’t always get behind a character who is willing to risk the wrath of the community so long as God is on his side, it works for me here – for all his careful consideration of the law and his soul, Cete is more Chaotic Good than a Lawful pain in the ass. And I liked that his choices made it clear that the often unbearable laws are open to interpretation (although it certainly helps to have a scholar priest back you up).

I’m still not entirely sure how Reiss packs so much into Sunset Mantle without leaving it feeling flimsy. It never does: I didn’t always like the world-building choices, but I never questioned the world itself. Like the tightly-focused plot, it has heft and coherence, and its characters step off the page to stare you in the eye. I finished it entirely satisfied, certain I’d read an epic twice the size.

And at the end, I was left with just one nagging dissatisfaction.

That damn cloak.