I haven’t had the best expectations with YA in the last few months, especially with books that have been coming with my OwlCrate subscription, and that’s probably why I’ve been putting off this book for a while. I really wanted to read it, but I didn’t want to get burned. However, this is a book that was done so incredibly well. From the plot to the way the mythology element was woven into the story, and even the romance, it eventually got to the point where it would be impossible for me to not like this book. I can’t go as far as saying it was perfect, because sometimes there’d be a part in the writing where I’d think to myself “well that’s a weird way to write that” but I can still say that this book was very well done and probably one of the better YAs to come out of 2019.
I never really noticed how this book was pitched as Project Runway meets Mulan until after I finished this book but I really love that pitch. I’m not the biggest fan of the “girl dresses as boy” trope but if there’s Mulan elements then of course, I’m ok with it and of course, I’m going to love it; I would never dishonour Mulan like that. I want to be clear though that this is not a Mulan retelling whatsoever, and while it does uses some influential elements from that fairytale, and is apparently also some kind of ancient Chinese imperial version of Project Runway, Elizabeth Lim did a very good job in making this a standout story that while you can compare elements to various other things, it’s still quite original. But the story wasn’t just limited to the competition to be the imperial tailor like I expected it to be. It went so far beyond that and turned into a near impossible journey for Maia in which she needed to prove herself in more ways than one. I think because I’m so used to YA cliches and predictable plots, it was nice to see that this one had a lot of unpredictable elements and wasn’t as easy or simple as you’d think it would be. The dressmaking competition was what drew you in but you stayed for the life changing journey in the end, and it was great.
I really loved the element of mythology and magic that was found throughout the book and how Lim didn’t rely on it as heavily as I’ve seen others do in the past. Sure, Maia is the typical nonbeliever in magic so the narrative is used to prove to her that it’s real and all that, but I think what I liked most was how the mythology and the magic went hand in hand. For Maia especially, there would be no magic for her if there wasn’t the mythology of Amara and the story of the tailor who sought to make her children’s dresses, which is the focal point of the plot. But a lot of the story works to discuss whether or not this mythology is real or fiction, whether there’s any validity to it at all, and at the end of the book you see that you can’t really have one without the other. There was also this moment when Maia and Edan were at a monastery and the high monk (I think that’s his title) said how as things have changed throughout history he’s realized that things like religion and magic aren’t as separate or divided as one might think they are, and I loved that moment not just for Maia but for the story because it really emphasized how important both elements are in this world and they need each other. The overall magic system isn’t quite as detailed as I’d like for it to be, since we only know that enchanters are essentially born with their abilities and reach a point where it awakens, but we’re also not beaten over the head with it, and to hold us over we learn that enchanters reach their full potential once drinking the blood of stars so for now it’s a good middle ground.
I really expected this main romance to be between Maia and the Emperor, which again I’m tired of seeing, so it was yet another surprise to see that the romance would be between her and the emperor’s Lord Enchanter, Edan. After reading Wicked Saints a few months ago, I feel like my trust issues for characters of this kind of immortal power has definitely increased because I don’t have time for authors writing the manipulative villain pretending to care about the protagonist but only cares about more power. I was terrified Edan would face the same fate since he had been so powerful for so long, but it was quite refreshing to see that there was no hidden agenda for him and there was no way for him to be revealed as the big bad in the end. Interestingly enough, the emperor seemed to be more villainous than Edan could ever be. But once you see how much Edan begins to care about Maia, and her in return, you can’t help but get lost in their romance. I loved his good natured teasing of her and how she always seemed to tease him back, or at least talk back to him and never be the timid girl she should be, and how he always saw strength in her. When you encounter magical, mysterious beings like Edan you always think the worst, but I’m glad that Edan turned out to be so incredibly selfless and good. He’s like a god-tier book boyfriend and I would absolutely love to see more of him in future books for this genre.
I thought that Maia, as a protagonist and a narrator as well, was really great and she had a definite Mulan element to her. I think anyone can relate to her dream of being more than what life and society has deemed for her, to be more than just someone’s little wife, and to make a name for herself and for her family. I admired how her entire purpose in the imperial tailor competition was to support her family and make sure her father and brother are well taken care of, which is where I see Mulan in her because of the overall honour she felt this position would bring to her family. But I think there’s more beyond that to Maia and how over the course of the book you see how far she’s come from being the obedient daughter that her family always saw her to be and how the things she did was for those she love, not for herself. What she did for her father, what she eventually does for Edan, it was never for her own gain or reputation. It was for those she loves and if she didn’t go on this journey where her life was hanging in the balance more times than she’d like, I don’t think she would’ve gotten to this unconditional, selfless loving person she is now. It’s such a far cry from the place she started in, where she could barely speak to the emperor’s eunuch, and her development is incredibly admirable and one that many YA readers deserve to read about.
I think my only complaints were that the writing could be beautiful at some points and other points slightly quick and juvenile but I’m not that picky with this book when the story was that good. And, well, I wish that the magic system was a bit more explained but I’m hoping for a deeper backstory in the next book.
Honestly, this book kind of blew me away. There were so many fantastic elements to it that reminded me of how good YA used to be in its glory days. There was magic, romance, adventure, and even a little bit of suspense, and it amazes me that all of these elements came together to create such a strongly cohesive book. I cannot wait to see what the next book does but I know I’ll be on the edge of my seat until then. Also, can we talk about that cover? Because it is STUNNING! That designer deserves a raise.
A gifted tailor in disguise.
Three legendary dresses.
The competition if a lifetime.
On the fringes if the Great Spice Road, Maia Tamarin works as a seamstress in the shop of her father, once a tailor of renown. She dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for us to marry well.
When a royal messenger summons her ailing father to court, Maia poses as his son and travels to the Summer Palace in his place. She know she her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to save her family from ruin and achieve her dream of becoming the imperial tailor. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.
The competition is cutthroat, and Maia’s job is further complicated by the unwelcome attention of the court enchanter, Edan, who seems to see straight through her disguise. But nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three gowns so dangerously beautiful, it will take a quest to the ends of the earth to complete them…