By Mah Xiao Yu (20A01B) and Megan Soh (20A01B)
Wondering what to get for your loved ones for Christmas? To us, books certainly make great gifts. And you’re in the right place—Raffles Reads is a new column which aims to promote reading culture among Singaporean students. The books, reviewed by Raffles Press writers, have been provided courtesy of Times Reads.
What if Mulan didn’t wield a sword, but a pair of scissors?
Packaged as a cross between Mulan and Project Runway, Spin the Dawn sets itself up as an exciting mix between Chinese and Western culture. Needless to say, the book’s unique premise—a tailoring competition—and overwhelmingly positive reviews on Goodreads and other review sites piqued our interest.
“My whole life, I’d been told what I couldn’t do because I was a girl. Well, this was my chance to find out. The only thing I could do was take it.”
Spin the Dawn is divided into three parts. In Part One of the book, The Trial, we are transported to the land of A’landi as young Maia leaves home posed as her brother to compete for the position of imperial tailor. Throughout the cutthroat competition, we watch Maia transform from unknown seamstress to the best tailor in the land.
Her first assignment on the job is to make three dresses: one woven with the laughter of the sun, another embroidered with the tears of the moon, and lastly, one painted with the blood of the stars. Her quest to obtain these materials is chronicled in the second part of the book, The Journey, in which she also falls in love with the Lord Enchanter, Edan.
The final part of the book, The Oath, takes a sharp turn that we certainly weren’t expecting—in order to protect her loved ones, Maia has to make a difficult decision that will seal her fate. The story ends on a sombre note, with a cliffhanger that kept our anticipation levels high for the next book, Unravel the Dusk, which is expected to be released in July 2020.
The three parts felt like three different books entirely—elements from Mulan (a girl disguised as a boy for the sake of her family) and Project Runway (a fashion designing competition) were concentrated in the first part, while the latter two parts took on whole new lives of their own, turning the focus to the romance between Maia and Edan before all else. The third part in particular, The Oath, though probably intending to achieve an element of surprise, felt rather disjointed from the first two parts.
The theme of family runs central to The Trial, with the familiar Asian values of filial piety and duty coming through clearly. We see Maia’s despair over the loss of her mother and two older brothers, which strengthens her resolve to protect the remaining family she has left—her father and war-stricken brother, Keton. It was heartwarming to see how determined Maia was to support her family and restore her father’s good name—to the extent of posing as her brother to participate in the trial, an act punishable by death. However, once we transitioned to The Journey, the budding romance between Maia and Edan threatened to overtake Maia’s devotion to her family, and when we reached The Oath, it seemed as though Maia’s familial loyalty had been forgotten. We found this drastic change in Maia rather abrupt and uncalled for, though some might appreciate the sheer sacrifice she’s willing to make in pursuit of love.
“I knew then that we were like two pieces of cloth, sewn together for life. Our stitches couldn’t be undone. I wouldn’t let them.”
Another aspect we expected to have much significance in the story was Maia’s feminist struggle to break the glass ceiling, a story that many Asian women can relate to. Indeed, it was inspiring to watch Maia overcome the odds, fulfil her dreams and prove herself worthy of becoming the imperial tailor, a position only open to men. However, we were disappointed to see this aspect was also eventually sidelined by Maia’s romance with Edan in the second and third parts of the book, where Maia’s fire to make a name for herself was overpowered by the fiery romance she shared with her newfound lover. Furthermore, the similar struggles of Lady Sarnai and potentially Ammi (the only other female character besides the two) against society’s expectations for women of different positions—a noblewoman and a palace maid respectively—were left unexplored.
“You sew better than anyone in this world. Focus on that, not on whether you’re a girl or boy.”
The development of our two main characters, Maia and Edan, especially their romance, was extensively detailed—unfortunately, at the expense of the other characters. Many side characters (Lady Sarnai, Emperor Khanujin, even the other tailors) felt glossed over and even neglected, which was truly a pity, because they could have added so many more layers of depth and nuance to the story. The callous behaviour of Lady Sarnai towards Maia in The Trial, for example, was left unexplained. We were especially disappointed with Lady Sarnai’s lack of development—if her character were fleshed out in greater depth and detail, it could have presented a very uplifting feminist perspective, or at the very least, the relationship between Maia and Lady Sarnai could have blossomed into one of sisterhood and shared struggle, instead of mere animosity. Hopefully, a more thorough development of the other characters will emerge in the sequel, and we can gain better insights into their motivations and backstories, which would make for a far more enriching plot.
Of course, there were certain aspects of this book that we thoroughly enjoyed. We agreed that the world building in this story was executed very skilfully; we were deeply immersed in the vibrant setting of A’landi, which seemed to come to life right before our eyes as we delved further and further into the story. We particularly enjoyed the detailed descriptions of Maia’s tailoring process, and the intricate manner in which her dresses were illustrated. The writing was lyrical, the imagery was vivid and the language used was beautifully whimsical. We greatly appreciated the author’s exquisite way with words; every page was a joy to read, in terms of language and description.
If you’re already familiar with YA fantasy-cum-romance and wish to read something that breaks boundaries, Spin the Dawn may not be the book for you. However, if you’re new to the genre, definitely give this book a try. It has many core elements of the genre that make it entertaining, and a set-up that feels equal parts familiar and refreshing. And let’s not forget the beautiful writing and lyrical language that’s bound to tug at your heartstrings; Spin the Dawn took us back to our thirteen-year-old fantasies, when all we dreamed of were resplendent dresses and charming enchanters, and a little sprinkle of magic could solve all our problems.
"Raffles Reads: Spin the Dawn",
“Seize the wind… Don’t become the kite that never flies.”