Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Thank you, Penguin Random House, for giving me a finished copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I want you to know that some journeys have ends, but not this one. This one will change you. Irrevocably. — Edan
Sometimes, I wonder why Mulan has so many retellings, particularly in the YA genre. Even though society is no longer very patriarchal because of the empowered-female phenomenon, many readers still love the idea of a woman pretending to be a man. In the case of this book, I think that it isn’t a reimagining of the beloved Disney story. The same could be said of Flame in the Mist. When a novel features a gender-bending female, should we automatically market it as a Mulan retelling? This strategy can be useful. However, it can also be limiting or misleading.
Spin the Dawn is about Maia, a talented seamstress struggling to make ends meet for her family. Her father is too weak and heartbroken to work, and her remaining brother can’t walk anymore. One day, her family receives an invitation from the Emperor. Khanujin needs an exceptional tailor to create a dress for Lady Sarnai, his lovely bride-to-be. Since Khanujin will only acknowledge male candidates, Maia claims her brother’s identity and infiltrates the palace. A fierce competition ensues, and Maia starts to doubt herself. After all, the final task seems impossible to complete. She has to create three dresses out of three mythical materials: the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars. So you see, the plot can be interesting even without mentioning “similar” narratives.
Maia was generally a relatable heroine. She was the youngest child (and only daughter), but she had a remarkable sense of responsibility. Her interactions with her big brothers were some of the best scenes in the book. Unfortunately, the war between the Emperor and his treacherous general took them away from her. Maia’s experiences made me imagine living without my brothers, and I couldn’t handle it. Hahaha. I salute Maia for her willingness to “man up.”
Contrary to my expectations, Maia didn’t start a romance with the Emperor. Instead, she became interested in Edan, the enigmatic court enchanter. I was so happy that their connection wasn’t instant or unrealistic. Also, Edan wasn’t your archetypal bad boy who treated girls coldly as a means to hide their vulnerability. The fascinating thing about Edan was his contract with the Emperor. Their magical bond reminded me of Tales of Zestiria. Like the malakhim in the said video game, Edan gained immense power by making an unbreakable oath.
Finally, I liked that Chinese culture/history was an integral part of the story. The characters frequently traversed the Silk Road to trade goods and procure information. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the food they ate: dumplings, coconut buns, and more. In a way, reading this book was like watching an entertaining documentary or a historical drama. It took me more than a month to finish only because I had ARCs to prioritize (and video games to play).
The sole weak point of this book was the vague conflict. I didn’t understand Lady Sarnai’s intentions. Did she give Maia such an unreasonable task just to delay her marriage to Emperor Khanujin? Maia wouldn’t have had to risk her life if Khanujin had ignored his fiance’s petty tactics. It seemed ridiculous that the fate of the kingdom depended on three wedding gowns. Both royals were confusing antagonists. If the author deliberately made them that way, I hope that the sequel will provide clarity. And I must say, I’m very excited to read it. THAT ENDING WAS SUCH A CLIFFHANGER!
Overall, Spin the Dawn is a diverse story with many layers. You’ll enjoy it more if you don’t expect a Mulan retelling. But the Project Runway comparison is a bit accurate. Look forward to reading about men sabotaging each other’s fashion projects. Haha. Nonetheless, I’m glad to add this book to my shelf of Asian literature. 🙂