Double Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim & We Are Not Free by Traci Chee | A Whimsical, Fantasy Mulan Retelling & A Poignant Yet Heartfelt WW2 Novel That Touches On Discrimination and Identity

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.

Goodreads | Amazon

REVIEW

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.

You will hold the seams of our family together, Maia. No other tailor in the world can do that.

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.

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.

official Spin the Dawn character cards
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… 🥺

Some journeys have ends, but not this one. This one will change you. Irrevocably.

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.

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.

“Seize the wind,” I whispered. “Don’t become the kite that never flies.”

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!

rating // ★★★

Other Spin the Dawn Content to check out: Sarah @ Bateau Reads [Review] | Becky @ Simply It’s Blue [Interview]

WE ARE NOT FREE by Traci Chee

Genre(s): Historical | Age: YA
Series: No

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.

Goodreads | Amazon

REVIEW

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

My future isn’t mine anymore. It’s the property of the U.S. government, and so am I.

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.

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.

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!

rating // ★★★★

Other Reviews to Check Out: Prutha @ Moonchild Lexicons (it as honestly through her blog that I got to know about this book!!) | Alex @ The Scribe Owl

Have you read Spin the Dawn or We Are Not Free? What are some of your favourite retellings or WW2 novels?

47 thoughts on “Double Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim & We Are Not Free by Traci Chee | A Whimsical, Fantasy Mulan Retelling & A Poignant Yet Heartfelt WW2 Novel That Touches On Discrimination and Identity

  1. I loved reading your thoughts on both of these! Sorry you didn’t enjoy the plot of Spin the Dawn very much! I find it really annoying as well when there are too many plot conveniences. I’m glad you enjoyed We Are Not Free though! I don’t usually read historical fiction, but it does sound interesting. Great post ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Allison! Ah I’m so glad that you agree, coincidental plots are way too unbelievable and a huge let down when the characters are incredible! We Are Not Free was such a heartfelt WW2 novel, I would definitely recommend it for its themes and found family! Thank you for reading! 🥰

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  2. Loved your reviews as usual Cherelle!! Ahh we are not free sounds so good, I’ll add it to my TBR right away, historical books have never disappointed me haha
    My favourite WW2 novels would probably be the boy in the striped pyjamas and the book thief.
    Looking forward to that recommendation post💙

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ooh Spin the Dawn has been on my tbr for a while and i’m hear to hear you liked it! though i’m sorry it fell a little flat, i hope you enjoy the second book even more 🤞🏽also, I haven’t heard of We Are Not Free but it sounds so emotional and like a very important book so i’ll be adding it to. my tbr :))

    great reviews, Cherelle! 💞

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh the characters and premise were incredible, just a pity that the pacing was a little unrealistic, and I can assure you that book 2 makes up for it, would recommend the duology, Spin the Dawn was truly such a beautiful and heartfelt read! And YES, We Are Not Free is honestly quite an underrated gem, I hope you’ll resonate with it when you pick it up! Thank you Aarushi! 🥰

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved reading the reviews!! Both books are on my tbr, and I’m so glad you liked We are not free because I’ve been seeing glowing reviews everywhere for that one. My all time fave ww2 novel is the book thief (#predictable) but that book is awesome, okay?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved reading your thoughts on these two wonderful YA’s! I enjoy how character-driven these books sound and haven’t read them yet, but your review captured each of them so well. Wonderful post Cherelle! 😍✨

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I got to know about it while I was reading The Magic Fish graphic novel by Trung Le Nguyen. I could compare that spinning dresses and collecting it in walnuts more with tale in The Magic Fish than original brother Grimm’s German Alleirauh. Oh and there is movie based on Alleirauh as well, title- Allerleirauh. I haven’t watched it yet but I will.

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  6. incredible, incredible reviews!! we are not free has been on my radar ever since it came out but i’m so scared to have my heart broken (but i also want to read it because it’s important ahhh). and oh my gosh! i felt the EXACT same way about spin the dawn! it was such a cool concept, with great characters and a great romance, but the journey part of it felt so low-stakes. in fact, i fail to remember even one exciting piece of it, i mostly just remember the romance aspects.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww thank you so much Kaya! Omg yes We Are Not Free is such an important read though unfortunately, I can promise that a shattered heart is inevitable! I hope you’ll love it too when you get to it! I’m heartened to hear that you agree, such a pity indeed the other elements had SO much potential! Thank you for the lovely comment, Kaya. 🥰

      Liked by 1 person

  7. omg cherelle! lovely reviews, as always! i’m so happy you (mostly) enjoyed spin the dawn, because i have an ARC of six crimson cranes, and i can’t wait to check out elizabeth lim’s writing style! i’m so happy there were great family dynamics, and you liked the romance and characters, because those are all honesty so important in books, but i’m sorry the plot fell flat for you! i’m still adding it to my tbr, and hopefully i enjoy it as well.

    also ahhh i read we are not free a while ago and it was SO SO good! i loved it SO much and the amount i cried honestly isn’t funny hahaha 🥲 traci chee’s writing was so gorgeous, and poignant, and tbh even though there were so many POVs they all felt like short stories lol. it definitely made me sob, and i’m so happy you loved it as much as i did!

    love this post! and it’s so great to see you back 💕💕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Ahaana! Ahh I was also fortunate enough to get an ARC for Six Crimson Cranes and would say that Elizabeth Lim’s writing and storycrafting improves dramatically! Indeed agreed, family and characters especially are the core of books for me, I hope you’ll love Spin the Dawn, despite the plot falling flat, it was still such a beautiful read! 🥰

      Ah I was literally tearing up reading your discussion post on your favourite books when you talked about We Are Not Free, truly the pain and the emotions were so overwhelming 😭 but it was an incredible read, and likewise, so happy you loved it too I feel it’s quite an underrated gem!!

      Aww thank you so much for the lovely comment, Ahaana! 🥺❤

      Liked by 1 person

  8. All of your reviews are so wonderfully written Cherelle!! 😍 My sister read Spin the Dawn and had the same remarks on the plot and pace of this story! But I’m so happy that you still enjoyed it! And I’ve never heard of that second book but you really piqued interest! Wonderful post!! 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww thank you Karla, that warms my heart! Ooh I’m glad that your sister has similar sentiments and truly it was still a beautiful read! Ooh We Are Not Free was such a thematic read, would definitely recommend it (though it will wreck your heart with emotions too)! Thank you so much!! 🥰

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  9. Loved your post reviews! They are so well written! I read Spin the Dawn a while back and at the time rated it 4.5 stars. I think I’d probably lower it to a 3.5 or 4. Like you said I wish we had more of each part, especially the competition.

    Looks like I need to read We are Not Free! It sounds like an interesting read!

    Lovely post Cherelle! Hope you have a great rest of your day, evening or night 💙

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww thank you Eryn! Ah I’m glad to hear that you loved it fresh after reading it, definitely it was a pity some parts were lacking as the tropes were truly intriguing! And yes, I would 100% recommend We Are Not Free, it’s such a thematic and emotional read… thank you Eryn, happy weekend to you! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  10. “thematic response to discrimination and identity during WW2” I’m sold! I’ve had my eye on this book for a while actually. Will definitely be picking it up sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I liked what you said about the whole ‘It HasN’t BeEN DoNE BefORE’ thing because that trope is so hilarious to me. I’ll def be reading Spin the Dawn as I am a huge Mulan fan. I also think We Are Not Free is a historical fiction that’s worth reading as it seems educational. Love your reviews!! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha agreed, it can be quite amusing even when not convincing! And aww glad to hear that, I love Mulan as well and I thought that not only was her plotline integrated well, the main character: Maia also embodied her family orientedness which was lovely to read about! I hope you’ll love it! Ooh yes, We Are Not Free was definitely one that gave an important historical perspective! Thank you so much, Saniya! 🥰

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