Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Review: Stone, by Alter S. Reiss

Review: Stone, by Alter S. Reiss

by Rich Horton

A few years ago Alter S. Reiss published a novella for Tor.com called Sunset Mantle, set in a fictional but non-fantastic world. I liked it a great deal, and so I was happy to notice that he has published another story, a novella or short novel, in the same world (though with different characters.) This is Stone, from 2023. As far as I can tell it's ebook only.

The main character is Rael, a young woman in Taraf the City, an independent city-state in what seems a roughly Middle Eastern setting and culture, analogous to our world two or three millennia ago. She is a strong woman, learning to be a stone worker, like her father. The city is building a strong new gate, in the face of threats from a man who has set himself up as a King and conquered several other city-states. Rael's father is a greatly respected stonemason, "of the line of Peor". She has two brothers and a sister. The plot is set in motion when her younger and more mischievous brother Tei is murdered by one of the Red Scarves -- a group of bandits living in the desert wastes, that had recently been declared anathema by Taraf the City's somewhat fanatical new scholar-priest after they had stolen some gold from a caravan.

Rael blames herself for Tei's death, for she had not stopped him from confronting the Red Scarves. Her mother, meanwhile, is bitter that no revenge is being taken. And the loss of Tei puts more pressure on their family to supply urgently needed stoneworkers. Rael's brother is more interesting in being a soldier, and her sister is not well-suited to the work, so they invite a couple of cousins from another city. And the two young men, as Rael quickly realizes, are not actually her cousins -- but her mother insists they maintain the fiction, because their labor is much needed. 

Rael, though disturbed by the lie, soon comes to like the two men, who are good workers, and who even teach Rael some things she didn't know. Indeed she starts to have feelings for one of the men, Arith, which are clearly reciprocated. And the work on the gate continues, until another accident strikes, injuring a friend of Rael's and also one of her false cousins. With his fellow hurt, Arith asks Rael's assistance on something -- taking a mysterious cask in to the desert. Rael knows this must be something questionable, but she trusts Arith.

And so, the resolution marches forward, a beautifully engineered moral tragedy, as the various missteps -- even those with understandable motivations -- come back to haunt most of the characters, and especially Rael and her family. This is complicated by the expected incursion of the ambitious King, and by a religious showdown of sorts, with the laws and rules of their society, and their consciences, propelling the characters to a crushing end, with heroic acts, treachery, surprises, and deep honesty all swirling together. It's a profoundly moving story, and I recommend it highly.

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