Spin the Dawn
By Elizabeth Lim
Knopf for Young Readers. 416 pp. $18.99
With all the cutthroat competition of a runway fashion reality show and the thrilling exploits of an epic quest, Elizabeth Lim’s “Spin the Dawn” weaves a stunning tapestry of adventure.
The start of a new YA fantasy series, the novel introduces Maia Tamarin. The youngest child of a renowned tailor, she cherishes her idyllic home and loving family; her greatest sorrow is the knowledge that, because of her sex, she will be barred from following in her craftsman father’s footsteps. But when tragedy strikes, Maia is determined to stitch together the pieces of their lives by eking out a living for her family, even if it’s a far cry from their former prosperity.
Fate intervenes, however, when her father is called to vie for a position as imperial tailor. Knowing he is in no condition to participate, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place in the competition as his heir. It’s not going to be easy: The other tailors ridicule and sabotage her, and she’s forced to test the limits of her skills and creativity during design challenges. But she also meets the intriguing Lord Enchanter, Edan, who helps her harness her own considerable gifts. She will need Edan’s expertise and all her own grit and aptitude to tackle the final challenge: fashion three dresses fit for a goddess, made of sunlight, moonlight and starlight.
Based in the sights, sounds and stories of ancient China, the novel’s setting is one of its most rewarding aspects. Lim evokes a landscape that is distinct in the crowded field of YA fantasy titles, and she metes out information at a pace that generates curiosity — though sometimes frustration, too. Maia and Edan have a tendency of withholding information from one another only to reveal it a few moments or scenes later, leaving the reader with a feeling of needlessly extended dramatics.
The same drawn-out pace of revelation at times undermines the protagonist. The audience is far enough ahead of Maia that she can seem a little slow on the uptake, regrettable in a story about a hero claiming her power. Fortunately, that purpose is otherwise well served, with Maia tracing a satisfying and not entirely predictable arc from obedient daughter to independent woman: “Being surrounded by eleven sweaty, zealously competitive men wasn’t going to inspire me, so I gathered some supplies from the cabinet and left the Hall of Supreme Diligence to find my own way.”
Though capable of such wry observation, Maia’s voice is usually applied to appreciating the sensory details of her world just as a devoted tailor might. When she cuts her hair to create the illusion that she’s a boy, “the strands whisked down my back, landing at my feet in a pool of black satin.”
Maia’s rendering as a master artist and craftswoman is complete and believable, and she ends this first volume in a predicament that is bound to test her will and skill, and leaves the reader wanting to know what comes next.
Morton is a writer in Los Angeles.