In a fictional world reminiscent of ancient China, Elizabeth Lim creates “Spin the Dawn,” the story of Maia, daughter of a tailor who is as skilled as any tailor but who is barred from the profession because of her gender. Her father has lost his ambition since the death of Maia’s mother, and two of her brothers were killed in the Emperor’s war. Now, it’s just Maia supporting the family.
Although Maia is the one doing all the work in her father’s tailor shop, when the Emperor’s messenger comes to take her father or brother to court to vie for the job of Imperial Tailor, she knows the Imperial Tailor can only be a man. Maia decides to go instead. She knows that neither her father nor her brother have the ability to do the job, and she knows that she does. So Maia disguises herself as her brother Keton and goes to the Imperial Palace to compete for the job. She knows if anyone finds out the truth, she might be killed for her lie, but Maia is determined to provide for her family and keep them safe, and she believes that she has the talent to be the Imperial Tailor.
When Maia arrives at the palace, she learns she is one of twelve tailors in a contest to decide who will be chosen the Imperial Tailor to the Emperor. The Emperor is engaged to Lady Sarnai, the daughter of his enemy, and is it she who decide on the winner, and the winner will create her wedding gown. She is a bitter and angry woman who does not want to marry the Emperor. But the peace treaty that ended the the recent war is based on the marriage between the shensan’s daughter and the Emperor. Lady Sarnai is not at all happy about that agreement. She doesn’t seem at all willing to marry the Emperor. So she gives the tailors seemingly impossible tasks, but Maia manages to complete them with help from some unexpected places. The contest is made more difficult by the conniving and violence of one of the contestants who determined to win at all costs.
The emperor’s personal magician, Edan, sees through Maia’s disguise. He helps Maia in several ways, and he encourages her to use the limited magic she herself wields. But palace intrigue and betrayal from other contestants threaten Maia’s place, and even when the contest is over, Maia’s future is far from secure. She is tasked with creating three dresses for the future Empress, one from the laughter of the sun, one from the tears of the moon, and one from the blood of stars.
It’s a hero’s quest, and Maia is certainly a hero. But heroes sacrifice much during quests, and Maia is no different. However, like any hero worth admiring, Maia’s heart is pure and true and her intentions are (almost) always the best. It’s certainly a story of female empowerment, but it’s also just a beautifully written story about family, ambition, love, friendship, and magic. While it’s the first in a series, Lim creates an ending that is satisfying while still keeping readers excited to see what happens next on Maia’s adventure.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, for review purposes.