Elizabeth Lim’s 2019 Spin the Dawn is the first volume in her Blood of Stars series.
Master Tailor Tamarin had four children; he expected his sons, at least, to become tailors as well. But his three sons have no talent or taste for tailoring. Now, his daughter Maia would make a fine tailor — if she weren’t a woman. In the Empire of A’landi, women are considered unsuited for anything save marriage and motherhood. Her role in the family business is both vital and never publicly acknowledged.
Master Tamarin is shattered by grief when his wife dies. Two of his sons die in the on-going civil war. One returns home, lame and broken. When the imperial court summons Master Tamarin or his deputy to serve the court, there is no male to send. But if no one reports, the whole family will be punished harshly.
Maia has the skills and the courage to act. She disguises herself as her brother Keton and travels to Emperor Khanujin’s court.
Maia has misunderstood the nature of the court position available.
The long-running war between those loyal to Emperor Khanujin and those loyal to the shansen is over. To seal the peace, the emperor will marry Lady Sarnai, the shansen’s daughter. The position Master Tamarin was summoned to fill is not tailor to the emperor, but tailor to his bride-to-be.
A further complication: to ensure that the Lady Sarnai has the best tailor available, a dozen master tailors have been summoned to court to compete against each other until only one is left. Maia is the only candidate without decades of experience. She is also the only one with no personal experience of court intrigue or the realities of court life. Nor has she any skill at lying.
What Maia does have is skill and determination. She also has her grandmother’s heirloom scissors, which to Maia’s enormous surprise are magical scissors. She does not know much about magic, but she knows enough to understand magic is a dangerous business. Still, the scissors could help her against her rivals.
Lord Enchanter Edan does know a lot about magic. He’s also observant: he notices that the fake Keton’s limp is mutable. Sometimes his left leg is lame, sometimes it’s his right. It takes Edan very little time to deduce that Ketan is a woman in disguise. He seems to be amused by Maia’s audacity and he does not expose her.
Others are not so considerate. When Maia is finally exposed as a woman pretending to be a man, she is arrested, beaten, and thrown in prison to await execution. Luckily for Maia, the empire has a use for her, a task for which she seems well suited. Too bad that the task appears to be completely impossible.
This may sound like Project Runway meets Mulan. Oddly, that’s how the book’s PR pitches it.
A question that comes up in novels like this is why, if the imperial wizard is powerful, he does not simply take over. In this particular case, steps have been taken to prevent that: Edan is bound to the emperor. This is a setting whose court scale is oddly small (Lady Sarai gets the one tailor, not the legion one would expect). Magic is insanely dangerous to practice, thus Edan is the only magician available to the court. It’s inexplicable, therefore, that the emperor sends Edan off on a long quest at one point, given what a precious resource he is. Ah, well.
The book begins with Maia’s return to her father and brother, so it isn’t a spoiler that she does not die in this, the first book of an on-going series. Though death would not necessarily have kept her from appearing in ensuing volumes, as this is a secondary world replete with ghosts and other supernatural beings, many of whom began as human. Indeed, magician to demon is an established career arc.
Maia’s disguise fails oddly quickly because her skillset is focused on tailoring, both mundane and magical. She is abjectly awful at subterfuge so perhaps she should not have decided on a plan that depends on a skill she does not have.
The novel takes a rather unflattering view of aristocrats. The civil war killed thousands. Nobody at the upper levels of society seems concerned about the fatalities, only about the success of their faction. The common folk are merely resources to be used up in the service of the greater good, which by a tremendous coincidence turns out to be the same thing as the high and mighty’s personal interest1. If you’re hoping for a Prince Charming to arrive in the third act, look elsewhere. Instead, the two core characters are people of low birth who are very good at what they do because they worked hard to acquire their skills: Maia, who doesn’t need the scissors to stand out, and Edan, who has invested centuries2 in mastering magic.
There aren’t a lot of surprises in this book. But surprises aren’t everything; the road travelled to a known end can be diverting and in this case it was.
- Of course, the women of the aristocracy suffer from sexism as well. Lady Sarnai, the shansen’s daughter, is commanded to marry the emperor, whom she loathes. She’s just a playing piece in the deal that’s to end the war. The emperor had better be on his guard; Lady Sarnai has a will of her own and she’s been trained to wield weapons.
- You’d think a guy as old as Edan would be able to resist falling in love with Maia, who is roughly 1/25th as old as he is, particularly since the odds of the affair ending happily are essentially nil. Watching her die of old age while he lives on would be one of the better outcomes. But if he had good judgement, he’d never have become a magician in the first place.