Hello friends! Today’s post is a double review of two books I’ve enjoyed, Spin the Dawn and We Are Not Free, the first being a whimsical Mulan retelling that was lovely but fell a little flat, and the latter being a poignant yet heartfelt WW2 novel touching on important themes that also caused me to bawl my eyeballs out.
SPIN THE DAWN by Elizabeth Lim
Genre(s): Fantasy | Age Group: Young Adult
Series: Blood of the Stars #1
Publication: 9 July 2019 | Read: 2 January 2021
No. of Pages: 392
Trigger Warnings ↴Violence, Death, Loss of loved ones, Blood, Imprisonment, Threat of sexual assault, some ableist language, sexism
Project Runway meets Mulan in this sweeping YA fantasy about a young girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on an impossible journey to sew three magic dresses, from the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.
Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.
And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.
Spin the Dawn, the first of the Blood of the Stars series is a YA Fantasy novel that is pitched as a Mulan meets Project Runway. It follows Maia Tamarin who’s greatest dream is becoming and imperial tailor. However, when her father who is gravely ill is summoned to the palace, she takes his place by posing a boy and goes through challenges to prove their artistry and skill, but the last task, that to sew three magic gowns, takes Maia across the kingdom.
In YA, female characters who are hardened by the cruelties of the world, can wield a blade and hold themselves in a fight, are full of wit and cunning, are ubiquitous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for them… but Maia’s character in Spin the Dawn was refreshing. She truly acts her age and personifies her modest upbringing as a tailor confined to a village shop. She’s innocent and lacks knowledge about politics, tricked and misled easily in the competitive environment she is placed in, and it is evident that she has no prior exposure to the brutality of the world. She feels like a real, growing main character that immediately I could resonate for root for, and my liking for her character was deepened by her feistiness and family-orientedness. Despite that, she maintains her sense of individuality, striving for her own dreams as well, and has the noble intent of proving to everyone that women are just as adapt as men, in the society where they are viewed as subservient.
You will hold the seams of our family together, Maia. No other tailor in the world can do that.
Maia is such a sweet character and I’m so happy that Elizabeth Lim gave her a swoon-worthy romance! I’m aware of why some have criticised the romance as cheesy and cliche, but I craved it. The layering and slow building up of the forbidden love with all the angst and tension, as well as the banter and chemistry between them, was so well done. Ahh the amount of times I’ve shrieked, like the “xitara” moment… 🥺
Above, the stars faded behind the misty sky, and the sun fanned its light upon us. We melted into each other until the dawn slid into dusk, and the sun paled into the moon, and the stars, once lost, became found again.
However, there was one huge issue I had with Spin the Dawn, it being the plot and pacing. I did love how Spin the Dawn was split neatly into two portions: the competition and the journey. However, I felt that each section was not given enough time to brood and was rather forced with so many “wow that is so coincidental or almost too lucky” moments. I was especially disappointed by the journey part of the book. Maia’s quest to claim the the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon and the blood of the stars, was so hyped up and implied as something so grandiose, something so impossible that nO oNe hAd DoNe bEfOrE. But it fell flat. The direction of the book felt rather random, and the heist was way too easy and simple. Ahhh let me just perservere for one page and oh in a blink of an eye I’ve surpassed all challenges and acquired one of the rarest substances on earth! Where was the grandeur with all the magical elements? Where were the different stages and build up? Where were the failures? How could it be that simple? Nowhere to be found. I felt that the plot focused way too much on the romance, and strayed from the actual concrete plot.
Some journeys have ends, but not this one. This one will change you. Irrevocably.
Now getting into the nitty gritty of the plot, there were still other places I was disappointed in. Elizabeth Lim’s writing is lyrical and poetic even. However, it faltered a lot during the climatic moments of the story, namely the action scenes. I could almost feel a tangible deterioration of the writing style during the action scenes, and the poor writing of that was compared to the rest of the book exacerbated the plot problem.
Overall, Spin the Dawn was a beautiful, whimsical retelling of Mulan with such a realistically portrayed, family-oriented main character and a 100% swoon-worthy romance, just that the plot truly fell flat for me which was a pity! Nevertheless I can’t resist continuing with book 2: Unravel the Dusk after such a climatic ending!
“Seize the wind,” I whispered. “Don’t become the kite that never flies.”
rating // ★★★
WE ARE NOT FREE by Traci Chee
Genre(s): Historical | Age: YA
Published: 1 September 2020 | Read: 1 May 2021
No. of Pages: 400
Trigger Warnings ↴Racism (Slur, Hate crimes), Death, Bloodshed, War themes
“All around me, my friends are talking, joking, laughing. Outside is the camp, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the city, the country that hates us.
We are not free.
But we are not alone.”
We Are Not Free, is the collective account of a tight-knit group of young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass U.S. incarcerations of World War II.
Fourteen teens who have grown up together in Japantown, San Francisco.
Fourteen teens who form a community and a family, as interconnected as they are conflicted.
Fourteen teens whose lives are turned upside down when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry are removed from their homes and forced into desolate incarceration camps.
In a world that seems determined to hate them, these young Nisei must rally together as racism and injustice threaten to pull them apart.
We Are Not Free is a historical fiction novel set during WW2, and follows a group of young Nisei (second-generation Japanese American citizens), whose lives are drastically affected by the bombing of Pearl Harbour by Japan in 1941, one of which is when all their families are placed in incarceration camps. These fourteen teens face bigotry, racism and crises of identity, and yet they rally together to pull through.
We Are Not Free was truly a thematic response to discrimination and identity during WW2. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour by Japan in 1941, anti-Japanese sentiments were on the rise, distrust and discrimination were rampant. Be it stereotypes and labels blatantly placed on Japanese Americans, to physical violence, harsh conditions in the interment camps they were forced into, the prejudices are felt and weigh heavily in the atmosphere in the book. It is such a realistic outlook on WW2, We Are Not Free abandons the glorified perspective of soldiers fighting for their country, and instead offers one that examines hypocrisies in the system. One of which that hit close to home for me was that concerning identity, with Japanese Americans struggling with fighting for a country that they love fervently but blatantly did not even respect them, instead viewing them as “impure”.
See, we don’t got liberty, we don’t got property, but you better believe we’ve got the Great American Right to die for a country that doesn’t want us.
The poignancy of this tale was further illuminated by its execution through the fourteen characters. Yes, we journeyed with fourteen different POVs and it was brilliantly done. Most of our fourteen characters hail from Japantown, San Francisco. They’re sisters, brothers and friends to each other, all Japanese but each with them with their hopes, fears, insecurities, dreams.
Gaman. The ability to hold your pain and bitterness inside you and not let them destroy you. To make something beautiful through your anger, or with your anger, and neither erase it nor let it define you. To suffer. And to rage. And to persevere.
However, all their lives were irrevocably disturbed when forced to abandon the life they knew and bear the brunt of the nation’s anger and prejudice towards the Japanese. They all have different responses whether it be trying to please and be perfect, turning violent, becoming resigned or even learning about gaman: enduring hardships with patience and dignity. Despite the struggle, all of the characters possessed and indomitable pride in their identity, empathy, and their friendships deep and true which made We Are Not Free all the more heartfelt for me.
One thing I have to applaud would be Traci Chee’s writing style, with each different perspective, you could just feel the individuality and understand the layers of each character. You rejoice, cry (and when I mean cry, I mean ugly big bawl) and anger alongside them. OH THE FEELS. SOB SOB SOB SOB. Apart from developing the characters incredible, Traci Chee’s writing style is also filled with small nuances reflective of the thoughts of characters that make your heart ache for the characters and burn with anger.
My future isn’t mine anymore. It’s the property of the U.S. government, and so am I.
Overall, We Are Not Free was a book of pure pain, pure emotion and pure soul, it’s a realistic yet empathetic look back at parts of history that’s often overlooked, touching on tough topics such as discrimination and identity. This is truly a poignant, yet heartfelt tale that reminded me why historical fiction novels are so important!
Outside is the camp, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the city, the country that hates us. But in here, we are together. We are not free. But we are not alone.