YA Weekend: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of The Blood of Stars
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers (July 9, 2019)
Length: 416 pages
Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim was pitched as Project Runway meets Mulan and believe it or not, for once we have a YA blurb that is completely accurate! Or at least, it perfectly described the first half of the novel. However, I was just pleased to discover that this was a story that evolved as it progressed, transitioning from a seemingly insurmountable challenge for our protagonist to a thrilling adventure that takes her on the road, complete with an extraordinary quest and a sweet romance.
Split into several distinct parts, the book first introduces readers to Maia Tamarin, the only daughter in a family of tailors who had to take on duties of taking care of her family after her mother died and her father grew weak and old. The situation only worsened with the Emperor’s war, in which her two older brothers were killed, while her youngest brother returned home alive but broken. Soon after peace was reached, a messenger from the palace arrives at their doorstep with orders for their family to send a representative to work for the emperor, but of course neither Maia’s father nor her brother are in any condition to do so. Problem is, Maia knows she’s perfectly capable doing the job, being quite the accomplished dressmaker and seamstress herself, but of course girls are forbidden to fill the role. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands, disguising herself as a boy to travel to the palace, posing as her injured brother.
Once there, however, Maia realizes how she had been misled. The invitation extended to her family was not for a position to work for the emperor, but for a competition to choose the best candidate for the role of palace tailor, judged by none other than the emperor’s bride-to-be, Lady Sarnai. Together with eleven other contestants, Maia must take on multiple challenges, creating the best clothes for her using what limited time and materials they have. The future empress is also a shrewd manipulator who likes to play games, bringing unwanted attention to Maia when all our protagonist wants is to keep a low profile. Aside from the fact she is a girl, Maia is also hiding a pair of magical scissors given to her by her father, and both secrets could get her killed if discovered. Worse, as the final challenge, Lady Sarnai has demanded three magical gowns made from the laughter of the sun, tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. To accomplish this task, Maia must put her trust in Edan, the court’s enigmatic magician who is the only one to figure out her true identity.
Readers who enjoy seeing a bit of everything in their YA are sure to be in for a treat. Court intrigue and palace politics are rife in the first half of Spin the Dawn, while the second half of the novel follows more of a quest narrative, focusing on Maia and Edan’s journey to fulfill Lady Sarnai’s wishes. I wish I had been better prepared for this drastic shift because the two parts are so dissimilar that they may as well be two different books, and I’m not going to lie, I think I was having way too much fun with the “Project Runway” aspect of the story! Even after finishing this novel and enjoying it overall, I still think the first half was my favorite part of the book.
Still, once the transition took place and we were well under way with Maia and Edan’s road trip, I was quickly won over by the beautiful dynamic between the two of them. Theirs is probably the most well written and healthiest romance in a YA novel that I’ve read in a while, starting with the fact that Edan is such a likeable romantic interest free of all the toxic bad boy stereotypes and lame hang-ups. I also love a good girl-disguised-as-a-boy story, and I thought the author did a fantastic job with the trope. Maia was brave, smart, and deeply devoted to those she cares about, and her personality created a lovely chemistry with Edan’s. Despite a slight slowdown in the middle, I was still pleased with the general pacing of the story and the fact that the premise expanded in interesting ways with every major plot development.
But of course, what drew me to this book was the world. And by that, I don’t mean so much the world-building or the culture and mythology of the setting, though those elements were quite impressive as well. What truly captured my imagination was Lim’s descriptions of the fabrics, materials, and techniques involved in clothes making, and the fact that this entire novel had its basis in a competition that didn’t involve the contestants forced to kill each other brutally Hunger Games-style, yet still managed to provide a high level of suspense and excitement. A sewing contest is not something you get to see every day, and I was pleasantly surprised how well the concept worked with some light magic thrown in.
Needless to say, I was quite enchanted by Spin the Dawn, a delightful and unique YA fantasy written in an evocative, flowing style by the talented Elizabeth Lim. It makes me very excited for the next book, which will hopefully continue many of the positive trends.