I’ve always enjoyed epic fantasy (as a genre, anyway; there are probably individual stories I’ve disliked), so I was excited to see Sunset Mantle in Tor.com’s novella lineup described as such — and doubly encouraged by Jo Walton’s endorsement on the cover. Epic fantasy has such a problem of scope sometimes: you need the world to feel huge, while also giving intimacy with a handful of characters, to make both the setting and the plot work together. Sometimes that makes a book balloon out into multi-volume epics like Steven Erikson’s Malazan books, or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros novels.
So I was very intrigued to see what someone would do without a pre-established world, within the slim confines of a novella. And I think Alter S. Reiss does a pretty good job of sketching in a wider society: tribes, clans, reaches, links both economic and feudal, with politics that dictate what happens in this story while also hinting at greater complexities. There’s the ‘madding’, too — some kind of battle rage, and a system of customs surrounding it which aren’t explained fully, but which shape the circumstances of the story. And Reiss does indeed keep it to a handful of characters: really just Cete, the first character we meet, and Marelle, the blind woman whose embroidery work enchants him, and with whom he falls in love.
If military fantasy is your thing, the battles and the training are here: Cete has to work to pound his unit into shape, to make them work together (of course), and there’s two major battle scenes. I think the only battle scenes I can think of that are evoked more clearly are some in Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King; the clash of the enemy lines is present in both, and there’s a real idea of the sweat and muck and blood and terror.
I suppose the only unsatisfying note is that we don’t know how the politics continue to play out, how Cete and Marelle weather the changes, and whether Cete ever really receives the rewards he deserves. And really, I do want to know: having got this invested in Cete and Marelle, I want to know what happens, whether they have children, and whether those children come to inherit, and — and — and —