At once wonderfully familiar and refreshingly new, Spin the Dawn is an #OwnVoices novel that is bold as the sun, elegant as the moon, and artful as the stars. It is definitely one of my favorite reads of the year so far, and after a couple disappointing new releases, it has restored my faith in YA fantasy as a whole.
The book is pitched as “Mulan meets Project Runway,” but that’s not entirely accurate. The tale begins in the kingdom of A’landi with Maia, daughter of a once-talented tailor whose abilities have declined as he has grown older and grieved the death of his wife. Maia’s three brothers fought in the Emperor’s war, and while a truce was reached, two of her brothers died, and the third returned home crippled. When the Emperor’s Imperial Tailor dies, he recruits Master Tailors to compete against each other for the newly vacated position, and because of her father’s reputation, Maia’s family is asked to send someone. Maia, realizing her father can no longer sew and her brother was never a good tailor to begin with, but also knowing a girl cannot be a Master Tailor, does the only sensible thing: she disguises herself as a boy, pretends to be her brother, and heads off to compete in a series of absurd challenges–embroider a shawl in a single day! Make shoes out of pottery! How about a paper jacket? There is backstabbing galore, the political stakes of the contest are higher than Maia initially thought, and for some reason, the emperor’s Enchanter, Edan, has taken a keen interest in Maia.
But that’s only the first ~40% of the book! The remainder is what happens after the contest. Maia is presented with a further challenge: to create three legendary dresses, made from the sun, the moon, and the stars. To do so, she embarks on a perilous journey with only Edan for company, knowing that the price for her failure–if she even makes it back alive–could mean destruction for the entire kingdom.
This book did so much right. First, of course, #OwnVoices novels are hugely important, and this fantasy in an Asian-inspired world, written by an Asian author, is a fantastic example of what magic can happen when a book of a non-Western cultural background is written well: old stories take on new significance, classic tropes get inverted, and our assumptions are frequently put to the test. (Great example: we assume that badass female protagonists need to be warriors, that domestic activities can’t be rebellious? This girl’s entire plot revolves around sewing and still manages to be gripping. That’s pretty neat.)
Second, just the writing in general was fantastic. The narration was smooth and easy to read; it actually felt like listening to Maia telling her story, without sounding artificially childish or supremely pretentious like many YA narrators do. She is self-aware, prone to second-guessing herself (but not obnoxious about it), and perhaps most importantly, she is determined to earn her own success. Even when she has the opportunity to use magic to enhance her work, she insists on not doing anything that doesn’t actually reflect her skill or the time and effort she has put into her craft over the course of her life. She obviously has feelings, and grief over her family’s struggles plagues her, but her love for them and her determination to succeed really shine through. And the language itself is pretty but not overwrought, so you can actually read it quickly and not get tangled up in overly complex sentences and excessive jargon, a trap which far too many fantasy authors fall into.
In terms of the story itself, the pacing is quick without being rushed; at no point did I find myself getting bored or wondering when things would actually move forward again. And the story itself is an excellent fusion of Mulan, a game show, a “chosen one” quest, and a doomed love story (oh, yes, there’s a nice rivals-to-lovers romance). There are a handful of ghosts and demons, but nothing too overpowering, and the ending manages to strike a balance between wrapping up this story’s conflicts and throwing a wrench into things, paving the way for a sequel (which, incidentally, I am already anxiously awaiting–funny, given that this book technically isn’t even out yet).
Normally, this is the part of the review where I would list some of the cons of the book, but I’m struggling to think of any
Some may say that the plot is somewhat predictable, but I think that would be missing the point. This book, in many ways, is combining several old stories with new elements, so of course some of it will feel familiar. For me, that familiarity was comforting without being annoying or uninspired, but I guess I could see people getting frustrated with that. I will also reiterate that the “Project Runway” element of the book really only lasts for the first third or so, which the blurb doesn’t make clear. Please don’t let the fact that it doesn’t match your expectations detract from how enjoyable it is!
In short, Spin the Dawn is a fairytale quest with a twist that proves there is still new ground to be covered in the realm of YA fantasy. If you like awesome female leads, romances that don’t overpower the plot, gorgeous descriptions of clothing, intrigue and deception, traditional three-step quests, delightfully sarcastic and charming men, magic that comes with a price, Mulan, and/or girls proving men’s expectations wrong, this is definitely the book for you. Strongly recommended–I seriously cannot adequately express my love for it.
Release Date: July 9, 2019
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review! This has not influenced my rating in any way.