Title: Spin the Dawn
Author: Elizabeth Lim
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 400
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Notable Notables: Chinese-based culture and diverse cast
Recommended Readers: Anyone looking for diverse, magical stories; also fashion!
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I was ecstatic to get Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim because the cover is utterly gorgeous (seriously, look at it, I weep) and the story sounded so intriguing!
Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming a master tailor, but despite her skill and vision, women are forbidden from taking such a role in A’landi. After misfortune befalls her family, leaving them more destitute than they’ve ever been, Maia also has the opportunity to jump at her chance: a royal messenger has summoned her father, a once renowned tailor, to court. Posing as her brother Keton, Maia travels to court as a boy to take part in a grand competition. If she can prove her mettle against eleven other tailors, she will become the Imperial Tailor. If she can’t, she and her family will be out of options outside of marrying her off—that is, if she isn’t discovered as a girl and put to death first.
However, treachery from her fellow competitors lurks around every corner, and the court enchanter, Edan, seems to peer straight through her disguise. And then the final challenge arrives, one that has previously been impossible to fulfill. To appease the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, Maia must embark on a journey to find the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars and craft three dresses from them. But these dresses were never supposed to exist, so what will it mean for Maia and the kingdom if she actually succeeds?
Maia proves to be an engaging protagonist. She’s definitely young and makes mistakes—the plot is merciless on her in the beginning—but she also has unwavering conviction and loyalty to her family. I love how determined she was to achieve her dream and fulfill her passion no matter what.
Her family relationships and the sorrow that accompanies them also feel real and have lasting impact. Even when Maia is apart from them, they are on her mind all the time, and the memories she has of them are vivid and moving. There’s one scene in particular that evoked so much sympathy and empathy from me, I don’t know if I would’ve had the strength to carry on through it like she did.
My favorite part of Spin the Dawn definitely involves the competition itself. Here, Lim demonstrates the beauty of her descriptive prose and creativity—both for the novel’s plot and in the clothes Maia and the other tailors create. Personally, I’m dying to see fan art of this book because it will be stunning. The twist with Maia’s scissors is also enchanting; I was so frustrated when Maia refused to use them at first, but I also understood her need to prove herself in her own way.
Maia’s competitors are also a colorful cast of characters. Despite their ill intentions, they all interact with Maia in entertaining and interesting ways, especially since they all think she is a boy. I’m still somewhat sad that their presence in the book was cut short.
At first, I became intrigued by the mystery surrounding the Emperor, but that soon waned. What continued to hold my attention was Edan, the Lord Enchanter.
First of all, Edan is absolutely the mischievous, witty character I always tend to like. His magic has also prolonged his life, turning him into a semi-immortal, which is only a bonus for me. Watching Maia and Edan dance around each other in the palace—with Maia warily suspicious and annoyed by him—is the kind of dessert for which I always go back for seconds.
However, the first half where all of this takes place is also where the novel is at its strongest. Some of that strength bleeds into the rest of the story until you get to the last third of the book, and then I’m afraid the plot and characters lost me a bit—or at least, my interest.
You see, I loved the idea of crafting three dresses using the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars. I was vibrating with excitement to see how Maia would accomplish this seemingly impossible task, what the dresses would look like, how she would craft them, and what would happen once these forbidden things were formed.
As it turns out, Maia accomplishes this rather easily because Edan goes with her, offering his magic at every point he can. I’m not saying that Maia doesn’t struggle a bit–she does. Alone, she definitely couldn’t have done it, but with Edan’s magic, it became simplified. This is not so much a strike against her as it is a strike against everyone else who has ever had an enchanter at their disposal. I would think that if these dresses were so desired, someone who also had access to an enchanter could have also pulled it off. I never saw what made Maia’s particular circumstances so special, other than Edan genuinely wanted to help her.
Then there’s the matter of Maia and Edan’s relationship: their romance developed too fast, especially from Edan’s side of things. Maia, I can understand. She’s young, inexperienced, and impressionable. As a being who is centuries old, Edan has no such excuse. As long as he is bound by oath, he cannot fall in love; he will not age as his lover will, and he knows it will only end in heartbreak for them both—and that’s just one barrier of many. Yet, all it takes is for Maia to possess a little magic and be interesting to him, and suddenly his convictions fly out the window?
It could be that it was so easy because Edan was just so desperate to be loved, but if Lim wanted me to believe that, then I needed to be shown it. I needed a lot more of Edan wrestling with himself.
It’s disappointing because I love their banter and uncertainty of trust and motivation in the first half. I love Edan in the first half, but he and Maia talking together is a novelty that wears off when it is just them alone together for the last half of the book, with neither of them having much character interaction with anyone else. I enjoy most when Maia has a variety of different characters to interact with in addition to Edan. I just became less enthused with them together the further the story went because there is no real conflict between them, and nothing seems to be driving Edan besides helping Maia.
Writing this also just made me realize that I barely saw Edan interact significantly with any other character except Maia. Hmm, that’s a shame.
This contributes to why my rating dropped, but the real reason is because Maia’s motivations change from involving herself and her family to becoming preoccupied with Edan and her love for him. To the point where she sacrifices everything for his sake so they can be together…and yet not… I won’t lie; I am still so thrown by her choices, just as I’m a little let down by what the power of the dresses was ultimately used for.
In the midst of all this, there’s also a good bit involving some vengeful ghosts and a demon, to say nothing of what’s going on with the Emperor, Lady Sarnai, and the shansen. That latter bit, though, is some vague “conflict” that is hinted at constantly in the background, but there is no follow through or reveal of what’s going on in this book. And I just don’t care all that much, about any of it, even the demon stuff, which is normally my jam. I’m finding it hard to envision where the next two books are going because the current direction is underwhelming.
While it certainly has highs that are dreamy and spellbinding, Spin the Dawn also has lows that drag it closer to earth than it was ever supposed to be. Though I mostly enjoyed it, there are a few things I wish had been handled with a less heavy hand. The book might have benefited more as being a standalone, but I’ll find out for sure once I read the next book.
Mostly because I am still interested in Maia as a character and her journey, and I have hope that I will be as invested in Edan with the next installment as I was during most of this book. I just hope Lim raises the bar higher with the plot and character motivation next time while bringing her wonderful prose and description with her.