Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
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.
I’m not gonna lie, I jammed that “Add to TBR” button the second I saw this cover. And then I read “Project Runway meets Mulan” and I turned into the physical embodiment of the I Have a Mighty Need meme.
So, does this live up to the hype? For me, hell yeah.
This is a sweeping, romantic saga steeped in mystery and lore that went a long way toward rekindling my love for the young adult fantasy genre.
The world building in this Chinese-inspired land was phenomenal. The Project Runway portion of the story is mostly constrained to the grounds of the Emperor’s palace, and it’s filled with court intrigue set against the backdrop of a vibrant city bursting with life. The second half of the book is no less exciting. Because it turns into more of a quest-driven adventure romp full of danger and high thrills out on the open road.
Maia is everything I look for in a heroine. She’s driven, intelligent, talented, brave, and loyal. The love interest, Edan, was just as strong for me. There’s none of that pushy, borderline abusive bullshittery here. Their relationship is rock solid. Edan, while teasing and mischievous by nature, is always there for Maia. From the moment they meet, he lifts her up and supports her. He believes in her. And she, in turn, is there for him. This is what a healthy relationship looks like.
More of this in YA, please.
This book is also super sex positive. I’m not going to go into detail here, because the publication date is a long way off and spoilers. Let’s just say that progressive, feminist themes pervade these pages without ever feeling preachy.
I also adored all of the shades of gray that Lim added to her villains. One-dimensional bad guys are not my thing, so I always appreciate when we’re given insight into their characters. Lim excels at that. She reveals just enough of their motives and driving emotions that you think that maybe, possibly, there’s hope for redemption. Which makes it all the more painful when they do terrible things.
Throughout this book, I kept vacillating between empathy for one of the villains, and abject hatred. Bravo.
The last thing you need to know before going into this is that it is definitely a romance. While the blurb only mentions Edan, their relationship is one of the central pieces of this story, and it dominates the second half.
Also, these characters are fallible. While Maia is intelligent, she’s still a teenager, and she exhibits some behavior that a lot of curmudgeonly adult readers like myself might find borderline TSTL later on in the book, which is what kept this rating closer to a 3.5 than a 4 star read for me.
But honestly, the setting and the story more than made up for it, which is why I bumped this up to four.
If you love yourself a romantic fantasy, add this one to your TBR right the hell now.