I’ve missed writing full-length reviews. I cannot believe that the last one I wrote was nearly a month ago. I blame mini-reviews and how addicting they are.
But fortunately, I’m back with my review of Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, which I enjoyed immensely, much more than I was expecting to. Come for the Chinese culture and Maia’s Mulan-esque character arc, stay for the sizzling romance and the quest.
TITLE: Spin the Dawn
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Lim
GENRE: Fantasy, young adult
PUBLICATION: July 2019 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
RATING: ⭑ ⭑ ⭑ ⭑ ¾
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.
Steeped in Chinese culture, sizzling with forbidden romance, and shimmering with magic, this young adult fantasy is pitch-perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas or Renée Ahdieh.
Trigger warnings: sexism, forced marriage, arson, death of a loved one (parent, siblings), death, physical/magical violence, slavery
Spin the Dawn is the story of Maia Tamarin, an aspiring tailor who disguises herself as a boy to take her father’s place when he is summoned to court to compete for the position of imperial tailor. Before long, she becomes swept up in the politics of the palace as the candidates are given one impossible task after another. Yet the final challenge is the most difficult of them all: to make three magical dresses for the emperor’s betrothed, one from the laughter of the sun, another from the tears of the moon, and the last from the blood of the stars. Accompanied by Edan, the mysterious court enchanter, she sets out on the perilous journey, and along the way discovers the darkest secrets about magic, her companion, and herself.
I went into Spin the Dawn not knowing what to expect, and I was completely taken by surprise. From the very beginning of the prologue, I was swept off my feet by Lim’s storytelling and the world Maia lives in. The storyline was simply addicting and pretty fast-paced, as Maia goes from competing in the race to become the imperial tailor, to journeying through the land of Alandi for her magical quest, to her return to the palace court for a final showdown. I’m not familiar with Chinese culture or mythology, so I can’t speak for how accurate the pitch of “steeped in Chinese culture” really is, but I had so much fun exploring the magic system that was slowly revealed throughout the book — I mean, there are magic scissors, people. You can’t go wrong with magic scissors in your book.
The court intrigue, one of my absolute favorite things in fantasy, was up to par. The backstabbing during the tailor competition was amazing. I love backstabbing. (I don’t know what that says about me as a person.) And every interaction the main characters had with the primary villains of the palace setting — Emperor Khanujin and Lady Sarnai — was so well-written and fleshed-out. Another one of my all-time favorite tropes in fantasy, The Journey™️, is also included. This — this is what a proper Journey should look like. Collecting magical items, a looming deadline, some serious romantic tension between the characters…
Speaking of which: Maia was a fantastic protagonist. She was strong and capable and confident, but also had moments of weakness and fear. Her love for her family was heartwarming, and it was tragic to see how her family slowly fell apart after the deaths of her mother and brothers. But I have to say, one of my favorite things about her was that before the events of Spin the Dawn, she had never seen a dead body before. Do you know how rare that is in YA?!?!? She felt like such a diamond in the rough compared to all the female YA protagonists with their deadly assassin skills and constant dagger/sword/knife-cleaning. I can’t wait to see how her character progresses, especially with the insane cliffhanger that ended this book.
And of course we also have Edan, the Lord Enchanter to the emperor. I love him. Such a sweet cinnamon roll. His backstory is so upsetting and I just want to wrap him in a nice, warm blanket and give him all the lemon tea in the world. The chemistry between him and Maia was absolutely off the charts, what with all that banter and sweetness and a couple of sword-fighting lessons as well. My one issue was that while I did enjoy the slow burn, I felt that Maia and Edan’s relationship progressed really quickly from “will-they-won’t-they” right into “love greater than the stars above” after the plot had progressed past a certain point. I had to suspend my disbelief in that aspect.
“You are my oath now, Maia Tamarin. And you’ll never be free of me.”
The writing deserves its own section. Lim’s writing is pretty sparse at times, and it’s not very high up on the scale in terms of descriptive prose. But there were moments when she wields the simplicity in a way that makes the raw emotion shine through — on which, of course, I speak from personal experience. I was crying by the end of the first chapter, which only got worse as we got closer to the final conflict. Just look at how Lim starts the book:
But I would give up the sun and moon and stars if it meant saving him.
Him — the boy with no name and yet a thousand names. The boy whose hands are stained with the blood of stars.
The boy I love.Prologue, Spin the Dawn
Objectively, it’s pretty cringey. But Lim knows her dramatic effects, and the way this section was incorporated into the book gave me literal chills and had me tearing through the rest of the book.
All in all, Spin the Dawn is an amazing YA fantasy. Whether you’re looking for some intense romance, diverse fantasy, court intrigue and political backstabbing, or strong female protagonists, this book has it all. I highly recommend it to all readers.
Abby the Christian Bookworm
As I mentioned in my review, I was struck by Maia’s deep love for her family. Rather than resent her brothers and father for being able to do things that are closed to her because of her gender, she embraces them all with love and compassion. Her gentleness and concern for the one brother she has left is touching to see. As the Message Bible puts it: She never gives up on her family, cares more for them than for herself, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force herself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, and doesn’t revel when others grovel, all of which which are some of the traits that St. Paul lists in his famous chapter on the way of love (1 Corinthians 13:3-7 MSG).
How do my reviews always end up becoming more than 1,000 words long? Have I always been this verbose? Anyway, thank you for sticking to the end if you made it this far!
How about you? Have you read Spin the Dawn? Is it on your TBR? Chat with me in the comments!