Today, I continue my series of reviews for “books I finally read because I thought they might resemble Calligraphy Guild.” Spin the Dawn has only been on my shelf since August, so it got read more promptly than a lot of books I own. It’s been on my Goodreads TBR for ages because the cover is gorgeous and the idea of sewing magic in an Asian-inspired fantasy world sounded really cool, so I finally bought it while I was out of town and I thought it would be a good choice for my comp titles list for its setting and craft-based magic system.
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.
Unfortunately, I didn’t click with this one very well.
The first chapter was really promising. It laid out the main character’s backstory and family relationships, it established a strong voice, and it set up for something family-centered and potentially slow and thoughtful. That tone lasted for a few chapters, with a little bit of the “ordinary world” and the inciting incident (which was very reminiscent of Mulan). But once Maia got into the competition, things started to go faster than I would have liked.
For most of the book, I felt like individual scenes moved too quickly and there wasn’t enough connection to Maia in her narration to feel like the stakes mattered. None of the obstacles felt particularly intimidating because they were always overcome so quickly and there seemed to be so little depth to Maia’s feelings and experiences in the prose. It wasn’t exactly a matter of telling instead of showing—the prose was mildly descriptive—but I would have liked for more time to have been spent drawing out Maia’s feelings to really ground the reader instead of racing from one obstacle to the next to the next.
The pacing also hindered my ability to connect with the characters. Maia was all right (I don’t tend to connect with main characters, especially not female MCs, so this is no surprise); Edan felt very much like the stereotypical, brooding, enemy-to-lover character for a large portion of the book. We did finally get a few slower scenes in Part Two where I was able to connect with him more, and I did come to appreciate his character better. I like the Balardans, Maia’s brothers, and Longhai when he was first introduced. But, as usual, none of my favorite side characters were given the page time or depth that I would have liked. When things really got going with the contest, Maia’s rival tailors (including Longhai) all blurred together (with the exception of Norbu, after a while). The contest is where I really would have liked to see things slowed down and more time spent on building up characters and establishing motivations and all of that.
I probably look for a lot more in a book’s worldbuilding than most readers, so take this next part with a healthy dose of salt, but I would have liked more depth from the worldbuilding. We get to see bits and pieces of certain settings, and we learn the bare minimum about the religion and magic system for the story to make sense, but I would have liked to see the world do more to impact the characters. It felt like the pieces of the world that we saw were only there to move the plot along and the characters didn’t really think much of them. This was particularly true of Maia’s views on magic; I never understood her disbelief in magic beyond the first time or two she saw it. I would have liked to see more of a shift in her worldview—complete with internal conflict.
And a personal pet peeve since working at a horse camp. Early in Part Two, Maia and Edan ride horses. Except it’s abundantly obvious that neither the author nor her editor(s) have ever ridden a horse in their lives, because the portrayal is so inaccurate. Maia’s horse doesn’t behave like horses behave, the impact riding has on Maia’s health makes no sense whatsoever (no, you would not be winded after riding a horse for an hour), and Maia’s confidence in riding is completely illogical (there are about five dozen steps in confidence between fearing you’ll fall off a horse and deciding to attempt needlework on horseback). After reading two cringe-worthy pages about Maia’s horseback riding experience, I’m very tempted to write a blog post about how not to write about horses and horseback riding.
But anyway. Horse-related rant aside. I didn’t totally hate Spin the Dawn. It was mediocre. The plot was all right, if faster than I prefer. The worldbuilding was sufficient. The characters were tolerable (a few had their likeable moments). And the formatting and cover art are gorgeous. But I would have liked more depth, more time for things to be fleshed out, more research done on horseback riding… and I could have done without the sex scene I had to skip (or what was close enough to being a sex scene that it made me uncomfortable enough I felt I had to skip it). Content-wise, there was also a fair amount of implication from side characters that Edan was gay, which I found unnecessary and which, from a writing perspective, never really made sense or felt adequately explained since he’s… clearly not, later in the book.
I was intending to read Unravel the Dawn as well and review the duology as a whole (since I bought Unravel the Dawn a few months ago, also), but Spin the Dawn wasn’t enough to keep my interest.
General rating: 3 stars
Similarity to Calligraphy Guild: 1 star (for the emphasis on family early on and the craft-based magic)
*This is an affiliate link, which means if you purchase through this link I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you
Want to get book reviews and other bookish content delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up to my reading newsletter!