Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim starts out exactly as its pitch promises: it’s Project Runway meets Mulan. Maia, daughter of a tailor who has fallen on hard times, longs to be known for who she is inside, rather than as the girl everyone sees on the outside. Aside from singing “Reflection” and getting a talking dragon companion, she really does follow Disney’s Mulan pretty closely. She shears off her hair and answers an imperial summons to save her father. She’s hopelessly naive. She’s terrible at pretending to be a boy. A stuffy bureaucrat looks down on her, and a hot dude starts believing in her. Honor is mentioned.
Then Project Runway starts up, and there are cash prizes for winners and elimination rounds for everyone. Marrying Mulan and Project runway is a clever way to sell a book, but I found myself wishing Lim had either really leaned into the competition aspect or at least put a different twist on it. As it is, it follows the show fairly closely, but lacks a sufficient understanding of why reality competitions are successful.
So, a slight discursus: what makes reality competitions fun to watch? The subject matter is just one aspect, and it’s actually not the most important. Sure, you personally might not turn on a cooking show if you’re not into cooking, but you can easily get sucked in if others are watching. What keeps most people watching is the construction of narrative for multiple characters, the drama of the stakes (and not actually the interpersonal drama, except insofar as it defines a hero or a villain), and the description of the process by experts.
We only have Maia to root for, and while she’s a compelling protagonist, we don’t get the snippets of other people’s lives. Almost everyone else is a nonentity or a villain, with one rather lackluster exception, and people are dismissed in droves, not one by one. They’re all also established masters of the craft; while an imperial position would be nice, we don’t have a good sense of how life-changing it would be for anyone except Maia. We also don’t get too many examples of expertise. Sure, there are details of embroidery and weaving, but I would have liked to see more of Lim’s research show on the page (she obviously did her research, and credit to her for that).
However, Lim does understand that we want to see the products of the competition, the clothes. It actually doesn’t matter that we can’t literally see them, since she’s very good at describing the clothing, her prose neither too brief nor too purple. She also understands that we want a snarky judge, one who knows a lot and also knows what they like. Lady Sarnai’s whims may frustrate Maia, but they’re spot on for the format, very Klum-meets-Cowell.
But just as things settle into absolute predictability, there’s a sharp left turn: Lady Sarnai decides she doesn’t want lewks, she wants the actually impossible. She wants dresses made from sunlight, moonlight, and stars. She wants Maia to become the tailor of legend who crafted the three celestial dresses, or die trying.
The story of the tailor who made the three celestial dresses should have been seeded earlier in the plot, since this feels like it was two books: the book that was cleverly pitched, and then the book Lim actually wanted to write. Once the competition is over (and it’s over surprisingly soon), the Project Runway aspect never really comes up again. The competition is an excuse to send Maia on the journey, but a number of other excuses might have worked just as well, since none of the other competitors help or hinder her on her journey. The pitch is basically prelude to the quest narrative, which sends Maia off to retrieve “the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars.”
Perhaps because she spent a solid amount of time on the competition, the race to obtain these mysterious materials is straightforward. A little too straightforward. Things are difficult, but nothing really goes wrong until the very end. I’m torn about whether I like this or not, because it did keep the plot moving at a very consistent clip. On the other hand, everything felt inevitable rather than exciting.
Where Spin the Dawn won me over was in the charming dialogue and Lim’s unique voice, which starts to come through more and more as the book progressed. I much prefer her original ideas and myths to her straightforward homages. She’s creative and innovative, and I hope that she gains confidence to write her stories as she continues to publish. The magic spiders, hidden pools, labyrinthine temples and more are all brilliant details that make a rich and inviting world. And her characters, when given room to breathe, have so much potential. Edan, the sly sorcerer, and the other members of the court are far more interesting and complex once the tropes fade away.
There’s a compelling political mystery going on in the background, which is a major reason I’ll be eager to pick up book two. On it’s face it’s rather predictable as well: the emperor must marry the daughter of a rival to ensure peace. But there are huge questions about the cause of the rebellion, the motivations of the emperor, and the powers of his soon-to-be wife that really made things interesting. Why did the rebel leader resort to demonic aid? What really happened to the emperor’s family that allowed a second and sickly son to ascend the throne? What part does magic play in all of this? Maia cannot really investigate since her status is so low, but her relative incuriosity was maddening at times. The war took a heavy toll on her family—doesn’t she want to know more about what caused it?
Of course, Maia is distracted by her budding romance, so I can forgive her somewhat. Spin the Dawn is heavy on the romance, which is predictable but still appealing. I am not a huge fan of the particular trope Lim uses to create the romantic tension, but this is a highly personal preference. I’ll leave it at that to avoid any spoilers, but the romance doesn’t end where you’d expect, even given the tantalizing prologue.
The concluding volume, Unravel the Dusk, has a lot of work to do to stitch up all the loose threads and streamline the plot, but I have faith that Lim will find her footing. This is a solid debut from an author who is more creative than she lets on. I hope she unleashes everything she’s got for book two: it will be a wonder.