‘Spin the Dawn’ is delightful, daring YA adventure

“Mulan” meets “Project Runway” in Elizabeth Lim’s captivating debut. There’s no shortage of intrigue, drama, or excitement in this fantasy novel.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Spin the Dawn” by Elizabeth Lim, Knopf, 416 pp.

“Spin the Dawn,” Elizabeth Lim’s debut original novel, marries fairy tales and fashion design, and I’m here for it. Set in the fantastical A’Landi kingdom (based on ancient China), it feels like a vibrant blend of “Mulan” and “Project Runway” and will instantly captivate young adult readers. 

When the grueling Five Winters’ War ends, the Tamarin family sets about rebuilding from devastating loss. The two oldest sons died in the war; the youngest son, Keton, is disabled; and daughter Maia has been running their tailoring business. Their father never fully recovered from his wife’s pre-war death.

Maia is an extraordinary tailor with a whole lotta hustle. She dreams of running her own shop but realizes that, as a girl, the highest she can aspire is to marry well. But fortune smiles on her ambition when the emperor commands the 12 best tailors in A’landi to compete for the gig of imperial tailor. Frail Baba can’t make the trip and Keton is a wretched tailor, but this lifetime appointment would set the Tamarins up forever. So, in a delicious Mulan moment, Maia chops her hair off and goes in Keton’s place.

Like me, you might think Maia sneaks off, leaving Baba and Keton to discover her subterfuge later. But this is the first of many surprises: both of them approve the scheme before Maia leaves! Baba even gives her her grandmother’s scissors, which turn out to be enchanted. 

Secrets come out earlier in “Spin the Dawn” than I expected, leaving plenty of time for unanticipated twists. Readers may still get a kick out of solving puzzles before the characters do; Lim gives her cast enough sense that the missed breadcrumbs don’t come off like forehead-smacking bungles.

Lim, a film and video game composer, writes with the measured confidence of a lifelong storyteller. As a fellow enthusiast of fairy tales, folklore, and myths, I recognized the lilt and pacing of an orator’s cadence in Lim’s writing. Take us on your journey, Madame Bard!

At the palace, bride-to-be Lady Sarnai sets a series of miserable challenges to winnow the couturier crowd. This bad-tempered huntress doesn’t actually want to marry the emperor – their engagement is part of a shaky armistice. With a crowded field of men (and Maia-as-Keton) competing for the dream job, y’all know what that means: mind games, sabotage, and drama-drama-drama! It’s glorious. 

However, there’s a wrinkle. The emperor’s enchanter, handsome Edan, sees through Maia’s disguise and recognizes the scissors as magic. Bored by his job and intrigued by Maia’s moxie, Edan takes her under his courtly wing.

After bidding “auf wiedersehen” to all but Maia, Lady Sarnai declares one final test: Maia must make the three mythical dresses of the goddess Amana. Not replicas, not riffs on the legend: the actual, literal dresses. According to the tales, one is woven with the laughter of the sun, a second is embroidered with the tears of the moon, and the third is painted with the blood of the stars. To acquire the fabled materials, Maia and Edan go a-questing across A’landi. She’ll have to face down demons, deserts, and her own soul. Make it work, Maia! 

In many ways, “Spin the Dawn” feels like a friendlier cousin to Julie C. Dao’s “Rise of the Empress”: a duology inspired by folklore, an empire in trouble, an epic quest for magical items, a young commoner vs. demons. Maia is exponentially more likable than Jade, though. She’s snippy, talented, tough, and independent where Jade was passive and prim.

However consciously – Lim did write a Mulan spin-off for Disney-Hyperion – the author evokes a patchwork quilt of Disney princesses in “Spin the Dawn.” Mulan is a given, as a girl undercover because her dad is too infirm to answer the emperor’s call. Belle also fits (see: poor provincial town, another dad in need of support, a boorish would-be suitor), as does Moana (magical family artifact, battling the supernatural). Tiana’s dogged work ethic echoes in Maia’s scrappy resolve to provide for her family.

Lady Sarnai gets in the Disney picture as well. She and Merida could have a blast at the archery range. And at one point, she practically channels the spirit of Jasmine: “A girl isn’t fit to be anything more than a prize,” she rages. 

With or without the Disney pedigree, “Spin the Dawn” is utterly charming, a melange of romance and grit that often surprises. It’s a clever and worthy addition to the YA mythological canon, and a must for any YA fan’s TBR pile.

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