One more time for the back row, or for people who just don’t like watching book review videos. If reading reviews is your bag, I’ve got you covered. Let’s jump right into it.
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The Blood of the Stars duology by Elizabeth Lim is comprised of two books– Spin the Dawn (2019) and its sequel Unravel the Dusk (2020). I read both of them over the summer (2020) for a highly digestible and fun read. And while I maintain that these two books were in fact fun, digestible reads. The first book, Spin the Dawn, really sent readers off on a good journey with cool characters and a fun premise. Unravel the Dusk was a far inferior book that completely unraveled the plot and writing style. It was almost humorous just how far the second book plummeted and for that reason alone (and to finish the story) it is worth reading.
But I disgress.
This set of books feed right into the current “Cultural retelling of fairy tales” trend that’s so popular on Twitter and seemingly with publishers. This isn’t a bad thing per se– I love fairy tale retellings of all flavors, so indeed there is an audience for it– me and all other dreamers living in swirling dark stories. But if you’re looking for a deep, dark, swirling world with unreliable narratives ala Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns (working through those as of this writing and I cannot wait to review them) you’re not going to find that here.
I stated in my video review that I have a suspicion about The Blood of the Stars book series, and that is that Ms. Lim is being groomed as a writer. What do I mean by that? Call me a cynical bastard, but in the acknowledgements of the book there’s verbiage to the extent of (and I’m paraphrasing) “Thank you to my agent for helping shape this story, getting it in order, making it perfect, blah blah blah.” I feel this supports the dichotomy (and suspicion) in the writing world as a whole. Whenever I see Literary Agents interviewed, they’ll say that your writing and manuscript need to be super tight and rock solid before submitting it for representational consideration. Sure, that is good advice– no agent wants to get a slew of sloppy writing on their “slush piles” as it’s colorfully referred. That said, if an idea is marketable, agents are happy to shuffle through a mess. It’s Business 101– there’s no shame in directness. But for the sake of the languid dreamers, the idea that this is all for the Art and the Love of Writing will remain at the forefront.
As for the books themselves, Spin the Dawn follows a very unexciting protagonist, an 18 year old girl named Maia who lives in an interesting world surrounded by captivating, fleshed out characters. The story takes place is an Imperial China-like setting in a fantastical setting with some magic. Now, I will address this before even getting started– I age these books for the 14+ reader. Therefore, you have to be sympathetic with the stakes. These are not adult books, these are an introduction to cultural fantasy and therefore you need to put yourself in the headspace of the reader who might be entering a fantasy world for the first time. I am doing my absolute best not to review these books from adult eyes, but rather from the perspective of someone who simply enjoys a good story.
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 can prepare 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.
So, it’s sort of Throne of Glass meets Mulan meets Yentl. Maia is a reluctant chosen one who wields enchanted magical scissors passed down through her family, and the tall, dark and handsome (and truthfully, sincerely likable) Lord Enchanter named Edan falls in love with her in spite of the fact that shapeshifting cursed genie dudes aren’t supposed to fall in love.
The reader learns that Edan has the entire kingdom under a sort of glamor in order to keep the Emperor in power, his betrothed (Lady Sarnai) is a cutthroat warrior babe who is in love with her Captain of the Guard, and Maia has to win some tailoring contents and goes on a spirit journey with Edan to accomplish as such. I like this part of the narrative because it humanizes Edan and makes him less mysterious and looming. He becomes a person, which is cool. There are non-graphic sex scenes and like I said, this book is a great summer read. At the end, Maia takes it upon herself to wish away Edan’s magic, get herself cursed by a demon, and the world is preparing us for a big, wild, crescendo of war and demon battles.
And this is where it can’t deliver and it all falls apart. Enter Unravel the Dusk.
Maia Tamarin’s journey to sew the dresses of the sun, the moon, and the stars has taken a grievous toll. She returns to a kingdom on the brink of war. Edan, the boy she loves, is gone–perhaps forever–and no sooner does she set foot in the Autumn Palace than she is forced to don the dress of the sun and assume the place of the emperor’s bride-to-be to keep the peace. When the emperor’s rivals learn of her deception, there is hell to pay, but the war raging around Maia is nothing compared to the battle within. Ever since she was touched by the demon Bandur, she has been changing . . . glancing in the mirror to see her own eyes glowing red; losing control of her magic, her body, her mind. It’s only a matter of time before Maia loses herself completely, and in the meantime she will stop at nothing to find Edan, protect her family, and bring lasting peace to her country.
Let me tell you. Maia is changing. And changing. And changing. And telling you all about it. And changing. For the whole. Entire. God Damn book. Seriously, it just keeps going.
There are some good elements here. Lady Sarnai’s father as the Tiger Demon. Lady Sarnai and Maia teaming up to revolutionize the world. And Edan…well…doing not much of anything, really. That’s not a good part, that’s just a thing that happens and it’s sort of a bummer. You take your best character and put them on the backburner and now his only role is to respond to Maia’s inner monologue. Swell.
The action in these books is hard to follow. In my video review, I compared it to watching actors in a play on stage. You have an empty scene with maybe some red or purple lights to denote action. It’s a static image and the terrain isn’t very vivid. Another gripe? Why does Maia keep “diving” when she lunges for something? Or leaps or moves or any adjective one could use to describe the movements happening by this character. I’ve never seen someone who wasn’t a swimmer dive so damn often.
Ultimately, The Blood of the Stars duology isn’t bad. But they’re not awesome. It’s a chosen one “but I’m a special fairy enchanted girl” story starring a character that isn’t so interesting. The writing captivated me (in the first book) right out the gate, and remained enjoyable in spite of some tropey or overdone elements. I liked Maia’s family. I felt for her when her mom and brothers died. I liked seeing her adventures dressed as a boy (though they were a bit tropey). I was okay with her rise to importance via her role as the Imperial Tailor. She’s an odd candidate for needing to save a kingdom, but sure, here we are. It was definitely a little color by numbers and checked some boxes. But again, if something isn’t marketable, it won’t be purchased. It’s that simple.
I give The Blood of the Stars duology by Elizabeth Lim 3 out of 5 lurks. 3 for Spin the Dawn, and 2.5 for Unravel the Dusk.
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