Tag Archives: Tor.com novellas

Book Review: Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss

sunset-mantle-coverSunset Mantle is a sort of strange little book. It’s an interesting mix of things that I love (epic fantasy, low key romance, a huge battle scene) and things that I usually hate (military stories, few women characters, overly stoic and maladaptively principled hero), and I’ve kind of fallen in love with it.

Cete is exactly the sort of outcast slightly grizzled warrior character that would normally bore me to tears, but the first thing we learn about him is that he appreciates and longs for beautiful things. This is a simple, honest desire, and it’s a small aspect of the character of a man whose only business and skill is death, but who loves art. It’s this desire that is always at the core of the story in Sunset Mantle, and its frankly miraculous that Alter S. Reiss manages to make this novella work without it becoming mawkish and trite, but he does.

Marelle, the artisan who created the titular sunset mantle, is kind of a fascinating character to me. I really appreciate the first physical descriptions we get of her which are pleasantly unsexual and focus on qualities that are representative of her experiences and the unique ways she exists in the world. Her age is unstated, though it’s clear that she’s a young-but-mature woman, and her beauty or lack thereof is never remarked upon, though it’s shown amply later in the story that Cete at least finds her desirable. In the beginning, though, we learn about the way she carries herself, the ways that hard work has marked her, and the way she smiles directly at Cete–“the smile of one man to another, rather than that of a woman to a man.”

This particular passage is one that Reiss handles with delicate precision, establishing Marelle as a character who is both comforting and challenging to Cete and establishing Cete as a man who (sadly unusually in the epic fantasy genre) respects Marelle in a way that is refreshingly unpatronizing. The first two pages of this novella might be my favorite thing I’ve read in the fantasy genre in years, and they are the key to understanding and appreciating the rest of the book. It’s a great cold open that, while light on action, deftly and economically introduces the two most important characters in the story and makes them interesting and likable without resorting to any hackneyed or offensive tropes.

The world-building in Sunset Mantle is similarly superb, although there was a stretch between the opening scene and the end of the first third of the book where I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what was going on. This might have been intentional, to build suspense or something, but I found it just confusing, and I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation for how some of the political structures of this world are organized. All the same, when I finally got my bearings, I was impressed by the depth of detail Reiss has packed into such a short book. I’ve read 800-page novels with less world-building than Reiss packs into just over one hundred pages, and this world could easily support a much bigger story than the one told here.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Sunset Mantle is that it’s just plain well-written (aside from the above-mentioned early confusion about the political situation). It’s tightly plotted, generally easy to follow, contains an excellent battle at its climax, and has a satisfying ending that feels natural and earned. It’s a small and personal story that still manages to feel epic, and it has enough darkness and high stakes to be compelling but stops well enough short of being grimdark that the word “fun” can still be reasonably used to describe one’s Sunset Mantle reading experience.

Book Review: Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Witches of Lychford is every bit as beautiful as its truly lovely cover (somewhat reminiscent of the posters for my favorite ’90s teen witch flick, The Craft) suggests. Like its cover, Witches is a story painted in subtle tones to develop its themes with both a clear sensibility for small town life and a gentle humor that makes it a joy to read.

The story deals largely with themes related to the disruption and destruction of small towns by corporate interests. The villain here seems to me a pretty thinly veiled reference to Walmart (or Asda, I suppose, in the UK), and we learn that what’s at risk is not just destruction of the expected small town community virtues but also the destruction of the border between two worlds.

The really standout aspect of this novella, though, is its characters. The three women around whom the story revolves all have their own separate and unique personalities and character arcs, which unfold at a pace that is both tightly managed to fit inside just 144 pages but also leisurely enough to be enjoyable reading. Judith, Lizzie, and Autumn are exactly the sorts of women that I love to read about: smart, funny, brave, resourceful, flawed enough to feel real and with just the right amount of magic. They’re also supported by a cast of small-town characters that feel familiar without the use of any tired tropes and have enough depth to make me care about them and become even more invested in what happens to their town by making Lychford feel like a real place.

The plot is simple and straightforward, which is ideal for novella length works. It’s never too complicated and Paul Cornell has a real gift for knowing just how best to develop his story and characters. While the urgency of the story builds throughout the book, events never feel rushed, and emotional moments happen exactly when they need to. The ending is satisfying, but it isn’t too tidy or trite, and it’s open-ended enough that I could easily see this story being continued in another novella or novel.

Recommended reading for a lazy Sunday afternoon in fall. I’d suggest making a day of just reading and watching stuff with witches in it. Combine with Practical MagicHocus Pocus, and something pumpkin spice flavored.

Book Review: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is the first thing I’ve ever read by Kai Ashante Wilson, and I’m so glad I did, if for no other reason than that I went out right afterwards and also read his short stories, “The Devil in America” and “Super Bass,” which are similarly excellent. As the first of Tor.com’s new line of novellas, which have all been heavily promoted, I had high hopes for this book. I wasn’t disappointed.

This is a book that is deeply concerned with language, and this is apparent in every intricate detail of Wilson’s superbly crafted prose. The plot is thin and linear, with most of the “story” functioning as character portrait and world building. I could see this being a problem for readers who are looking for something more exciting, but the adventure here is less the physical journey of the caravan and more the emotional and spiritual journey of the titular character.

Demane is a character who has come a long way already by the time we meet him at the beginning of Sorcerer. He’s very much an outsider in the group of caravan guards that he’s currently traveling with as well as their more well-to-do employers. As the caravan travels into a large and untamed jungle, amidst rumors of a beast that is marauding along the road, we’re treated to a thorough exploration of Demane’s outsider status, largely through his interactions with other characters.

The worldbuilding is where The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps really stands out, though. It reminds me a little bit of Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker, which also contained a large and mysterious jungle and a city on the edge of it, but Sorcerer is much broader in its scope and is focused less on the exploration of the forest and more on an exploration of Demane’s interactions with the people he meets on his journey. Even the monster Demane must defeat at the end is never concretely described.

I would have liked to see more actual adventure and less standing around in a town talking about stuff. Because so much time was spent on what mostly amounted to a whole lot of incredible worldbuilding mixed with some incisive social commentary, the action at the end of the book felt rushed and the ending felt a little tacked on. While this was somewhat frustrating, it did whet my appetite for the setting, and I really, really hope that Wilson revisits this world in some longer fiction.

A final note: I bought an .epub version of the book, and I found the formatting to be a little bad. It wasn’t always clear when the story shifted between the present and flashbacks, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not. Either way, it was sometimes confusing and took me out of an otherwise immersive story.