Red Mantle by Maria Turtschaninoff
Maria Turtschaninoff’s Maresi told the story of the Red Abbey — a feminist, goddess-worshipping sanctuary for women — and the young novice whose special powers helped her save it from invaders. The sequel, Naondel, was really a prequel, going back to the founders of the Abbey and explaining how they came together to form it. Red Mantle (2018), the conclusion of the RED ABBEY CHRONICLES series, returns to Maresi, the heroine of the first book, as she enters young womanhood and ventures into the world beyond the isle of Menos.
Red Mantle is an epistolary novel, told through Maresi’s letters home to the Abbey. This structure works well, giving the novel an intimate feel. It also often allows us to see events from several different angles, because what Maresi writes to her teacher Sister O is different from what she writes to her best friend Jai, and different from what she writes to her friend Ennike, who has become the priestess of the Rose and thus of sacred sexuality.
Maresi has left the Abbey for her homeland of Rovas, where she plans to start a school for girls and teach the knowledge she learned from the sisters. There is a joyous reunion with her family. But Maresi finds that she doesn’t quite fit in with her village anymore. It’s like that experience where you go away to college, and then go back to your hometown and people think you’re a space alien for having gone. There’s a painfully realistic conflict between different types of knowledge; Maresi has book learning that the villagers distrust, and the villagers have wisdom they’ve learned through experience that Maresi doesn’t fully grasp at first.
Also painfully realistic are the obstacles to Maresi’s school. What happens when you can’t get your project off the ground because there’s too much day-to-day work to do? What happens if the money earmarked for it is needed for a more urgent purpose? What if your original vision of it needs to be rethought, because it would have excluded many people who could benefit from it?
Looming over everything is the threat of the nádor, the local governor, who is oppressing the people of Rovas with ruinous taxes, taking advantage of widespread illiteracy to lie about what the law says. His soldiers destroy farms and sacred groves, and sexually assault young women. Maresi does her best to protect her village from the nádor, but eventually she will have to confront him head-on if she wants her reforms to have any lasting effect.
Woven into all of this are the events of Maresi’s personal life. There are births and deaths in her family. She discovers sex and love for the first time. This shakes her up, as she had always assumed her life would be entirely devoted to the Crone, goddess of death and wisdom, and that she would never marry.
The novel builds to a terrific climax that is beautifully done. I had wondered how Maresi, who despite her education is essentially a peasant, would be able to make a stand against the nádor and his army. What happens works really well, and builds on everything that Turtschaninoff has set up throughout the series, and is deeply emotional too.
I think Red Mantle hits the sweet spot for this series in terms of how much time is covered. Most of the second half of Maresi takes place in a day, and I wished I’d had more time to spend with the characters. Then, with Naondel, I found myself thinking that maybe decades were a bit much, especially when almost everything that happened in those decades was tragic. Red Mantle unfolds over two years (with one last letter years later), and the pacing is smooth. I won’t say fast — it’s a more contemplative book than that — but with a consistent forward momentum. And there’s a good mix of joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy.
There’s one odd little mystery that comes up in the history and legends of Rovas that is not explained, but what I figured out later is that this period is covered in two other books by Turtschaninoff, Arra and Anaché, which are not yet available in English. It appears that translator A.A. Prime is currently working on Arra, which is great news. Her translations of the RED ABBEY CHRONICLES have been lovely.
Red Mantle finishes the trilogy on a high note. In my opinion, it’s the strongest of the three, and the whole series is excellent. The writing is evocative and the characters “real,” and there’s a throughline about the power of compassion, knowledge, and courage as forces against tyranny.
I’m so glad to hear that this trilogy ended well!