Mulan crossed with Project Runway? Doesn’t that sound like one of the most intriguing things ever? When I saw Spin the Dawn being pitched that way, I scrambled for any way to get my hands on ARC. Luckily, Shealea @ Shut Up, Shealea launched the #SpinTheDawnTour and I was one of the lucky folks who got a slot!
Elizabeth Lim, by the way, is a complete and utter gem. Not only did tour participants get ARCs, but she also got us pre-order goodies! However, I can’t really show off my collection until tomorrow. As I write this review, I’m at my mom’s house in the south, and unfortunately, I left my set of pre-order cards and stickers at my apartment. (Oof. 😔) I’ll take photos when I get back, but suffice it to say, the swag is super pretty and well-made! Best of all, she and Knopf Books for Young Readers have also got an international giveaway going! Everybody say thank you, Elizabeth!
More than the swag and giveaway though, I have to say that reading this book was an incredibly enjoyable journey. There were a few bumps along the way which I will talk about more here, but all in all, this was a great read that I’m eager to share with everyone.
Please note though that this review contains spoilers, so tread cautiously.
Title: Spin the Dawn
Author: Elizabeth Lim
Age Range: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Adventure
Project Runway meets Mulan in this sweeping YA fantasy about a young girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on an impossible journey to sew three magic dresses, from the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.
Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.
And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.
Content warnings: Threat of rape, torture, graphic violence, ableist language/faking of a disability
☕ Quotes ☕
“I was young enough then that the idea of going to war was romantic to me. Having two brothers become soldiers felt honorable.”
“Ask me to spin the finest yarn or thread, and I can do it faster than any man–even with my eyes closed. Yet ask me to tell a lie, and I will stumble and falter to think of one.”
“Seize the wind. Don’t be the kite that never flies.”
“Artisans such as you are soldiers in times of war. Do not forget that.”
“Sendo used to tell me fairy tales. How he’d love mine if he were still alive: the tale of a girl who’d sewn the sun, the moon, and the stars into three dresses.”
“The night was dark and starless, but inside my little room, I’d spun a world of light.”
“You are my oath now, Maia Tamarin.”
“I’d battled ghosts and touched the stars. I’d climbed a mountain to the moon and conquered the fury of the sun. How could I be the same girl who used to sit in the corner mending rips and practicing embroidery all day?”
☕ Plot ☕
The kingdom of A’landi is caught in the aftermath of the Five Winters War, a civil war between Emperor Khanujin and his shansen, the country’s greatest military warlord. It’s said that the cause of the rift between the Emperor and what should have been his greatest servant was because Emperor Khanujin used magic, which the shansen and other northerners of the kingdom believe is evil and demonic. The war is ended, and a truce solidified by a marriage between the Emperor and the shansen’s daughter, Lady Sarnai. Naturally, this creates an atmosphere of political tension and intrigue at court.
Into this den of lions is thrust Maia Tamarin, a young seamstress whose father was once famous for being a great tailor. Her mother’s death, her father’s alcoholism, and the death of her two brothers and the grave injury of another brother in the Five Winters War has made Maia more or less the anchor of her family. So when the Emperor demands that Kalsang Tamarin come to the Summer Palace in order to participate in a competition to determine who the new Imperial Tailor, Maia knows that she needs to take her father’s place.
The competition to become Imperial Tailor comprises the first part of Spin the Dawn. The second is more of a traditional theme of a hero going on a journey so prevalent in fantasy. Maia needs to weave dresses from a A’landian fairy tale: a dress made from the laughter of the sun, one made from the tears of the moon, and a third made from the blood of stars. On her journey to obtain these impossible materials of legend, Maia finds herself beginning to fall for Edan, the Lord Enchanter of the Emperor, who himself is as trapped and oppressed by Emperor Khanujin.
Overall, the plot and themes of this book were really good. I love a good fairy tale, and Spin the Dawn had all the elements necessary for a successful one. It had a strong, determined main character you could unfailingly root for, a hostile environment or competition which she has to overcome, and help from a pair of magical scissors. From the competition to become Imperial Tailor, the story moves on to Maia overcoming the trials of her last challenge, which is to weave the three dresses from a famous legend about a goddess.
One of the things I loved the most about Spin the Dawn is how it addresses the theme of women struggling to make their way in a man’s world. Not only does the book show very clearly how Maia struggles to maintain the secret of her gender, but it also makes a point of showing how even wealth and privilege is not a shield against misogyny, vis-a-vis the character of Lady Sarnai. What I find particularly interesting is how ultimately, Maia and Lady Sarnai aren’t all that different, no matter how vast the gaps in their stations in life. I personally think that, had they not been on opposing sides of an extremely polarized political conflict.
Another interesting aspect of this book is its portrayal of how disparate perception of work is when it’s done by men as opposed to other genders. Maia and many other women are capable of all the other skills shown off by the master tailors in the book, but their work – ordinary and unpaid – is seen as women’s labor. Only when it’s elevated to a higher, and more importantly, paid, level is it now work that should be done solely by men. It’s a highly nuanced and introspective look at gender differences when it comes to labor, and one I highly appreciate.
☕ Writing ☕
The writing of this book is almost utterly flawless. It’s simultaneously lyrical and straightforward; practical and poetic. While easy to read, this doesn’t at all diminish the impact of the story. For me, Spin the Dawn perfectly straddles the line between charming and thought-provoking.
However, I did have a few critiques on the writing that prevent me from giving this book the whole 5 stars. For one thing, I found the transition from the competition to be Imperial Tailor toward hunting for the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars utterly jarring. It made me feel like this was supposed to be two books rather than one. Although I appreciated both parts of the book, I personally didn’t feel like they worked together to form a cohesive narrative. I went into this book expecting full-on political intrigue and court shenanigans, so I must admit, I felt a little shortchanged when Maia wins halfway through the book and is sent on a quest very quickly.
Another thing I had a problem with is the magic system, which, for me, doesn’t make sense. I remember going over Edan’s explanation on how magic works several times just so I could try to understand it, but unfortunately, I could still make neither head nor tail of it. The rules are not clearly defined and are sometimes contradicted from one scene to another.
Other than that though, I think Elizabeth Lim is an excellent writer. The descriptions of the gowns, shoes, jackets, and shawls that Maia and the other tailors craft for Lady Sarnai and Emperor Khanujin are magnificently detailed, so much so that you could actually draw and make them in real life if I had a head for that sort of thing. The way that the kingdom of A’landi and its surrounding territories is shown in the book is lush and evocative enough for the reader to very clearly see. If you’re looking for a book that will whisk you away to fantastic locations and make you dream of extraordinary clothes, definitely pick this up.
☕ Characters ☕
I WOULD DIE FOR MAIA BUT ALSO I WANT LADY SARNAI TO RAW ME INTO A WALL
— ya friendly neighborhood tita (@yourtitakate) July 5, 2019
And that should tell you all about how I feel about Spin the Dawn’s characters.
All kidding aside though, one of the things that just really made this book work was how believable and compelling all the characters were. You rarely see that in a book, but there wasn’t a single character that I thought was not well-written. Often, what will happen in a fantasy book is that certain characters are overshadowed by others. And that’s totally understandable. After all, some characters are simply just going to outshine others. Not so for this book. I remember each and every single one, and they all had some characteristics that made them memorable to me. From Longhai’s helpfulness to Norbu being a slimy traitor, to the way Edan came to care for Maia, Maia’s steadfast loyalty to her family, Empero Khanujin’s frailty and weakness juxtaposed against Lady Sarnai’s raw strength and power, Spin the Dawn gives us a varied ensemble cast that leaves you wanting more.
☕ Overall ☕
Although Spin the Dawn stumbles over a few roadblocks, it more than makes up for that with its superb storytelling, its captivating characters, and the fearless ways it explores a traditional trope in a new, exciting way. I was left on tenterhooks towards the ending and am honestly so excited for the second book!
Find out more about Spin the Dawn and its author, Elizabeth Lim!
Elizabeth Lim grew up on a hearty staple of fairy tales, myths, and songs. Her passion for storytelling began around age 10, when she started writing fanfics for Sailor Moon, Sweet Valley, and Star Wars, and posted them online to discover, “Wow, people actually read my stuff. And that’s kinda cool!” But after one of her teachers told her she had “too much voice” in her essays, Elizabeth took a break from creative writing to focus on not flunking English.
Over the years, Elizabeth became a film and video game composer, and even went so far as to get a doctorate in music composition. But she always missed writing, and turned to penning stories when she needed a breather from grad school. One day, she decided to write and finish a novel — for kicks, at first, then things became serious — and she hasn’t looked back since.
Elizabeth loves classic film scores, books with a good romance, food (she currently has a soft spot for arepas and Ethiopian food), the color turquoise, overcast skies, English muffins, cycling, and baking. She lives in New York City with her husband.
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Love and light,