In Elizabeth Lim’s Spin the Dawn, Maia Tamarin is the best seamstress in her small coastal town, but that doesn’t matter when an advisor from the palace comes looking for her father to replace the emperor’s Royal Tailor. There’s just one problem: women cannot be tailors in A’landi. They can only be seamstresses. So it must be a male from her family who goes to the palace.
But Maia’s father is sickly and her brother is newly returned from fighting in the war, so Maia impersonates him; she shears off her long hair and makes her journey to the palace as a man. At the palace, she enters into a cutthroat competition with other tailors from around the kingdom who are all vying for the role of Royal Tailor.
During the competition, Maia catches the eye of Edan, the Emperor’s Royal Enchanter, who seems to figure out her secret a little too quickly. The competition gets challenging as the emperor’s fiancée drafts more and more complicated challenges for Maia to undertake, until she must leave the palace and journey to the ends of the earth to find the sun, the moon, and the blood of the stars to make three magical gowns.
Elizabeth Lim is also the author of Six Crimson Cranes, which I reviewed earlier last year. Spin the Dawn was written first, and is just as enjoyable. Lim is a masterful storyteller and she weaves a magical tale once again that is steeped in Eastern mythology and folklore and that also echoes the themes of Mulan. She is skilled at creating worlds which leap off the page, and Spin the Dawn is no different.
The Kingdom of A’landi is one that is recovering from a brutal war, one that only ended with the betrothal of the emperor with his enemy’s daughter. Political tensions are on the rise, and the kingdom is on the brink of destruction, Maia realises, as she ventures out to perform her impossible task. Lim’s world building is demonstrated here as we travel through lands that are both beautiful but deadly, in the second half of the story.
Lim’s cast of characters are three dimensional, with many flaws and weaknesses. Maia is a strong and willful protagonist, one who knows her mind and goes after what she wants. She grows from being a timid girl hiding as a boy as she completes the weekly challenges, to a strong girl who is willing to fight for what she wants. The remaining members of her broken family, her father and brother, remain at the forefront of her every decision as she struggles to keep her identity a secret.
Edan, the lord enchanter, is a man with many secrets, but he takes a liking to Maia early on, and their romance is sweet and heartwarming as it blossoms throughout the story. Lady Sarnai, the emperor’s fiancée, is another character the reader is meant to hate, but can’t quite do so as they learn about her struggles and forceful engagement to the emperor.
The story reaches a heart-pounding and breathless climax when Maia reaches the point where the blood of the stars must be collected. It is a journey that will irrevocably change her, so that when she completes the challenge and returns to the palace with the magical gowns, nothing is the same and everything has changed.
If you’re a fan of mythical stories with fantastical plots set in magical realms, with a cast of complex and creative characters, then Spin the Dawn is for you! As for me, I will be reading anything Elizabeth Lim writes.