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.
Read below for my spoiler-free review
I really wanted to like this book. It has all of the elements needed for a perfect YA fantasy–an Asian badass, a cool setting, a unique premise, and the promise of a “Mulan-Project Runway crossover”. Unfortunately, the results were lackluster and cliched.
The setting really confused me. There were elements randomly plucked from different Asian cultures, and the result reflected some sort of archaic view that all of Asia is interchangeable. There were Arabian elements–a flying carpet, a jinn, the use of “baba” as a word for father. But the ruler of the nation was an “emperor”, which is suggestive of East Asian culture, and a lot of the names had Chinese influences. The girl on the cover is also distinctly Chinese. I understand that this was a fantasy world inspired by Asian culture, but it was just too strange and nonsensical to provide a solid world-building.
Another disappointing aspect of the book was the failure to deliver something truly “Project Runway”. This is what most appealed to me, but I feel like it took a bit of a back seat. I don’t know much about sewing, but I certainly don’t think the author does either. I was excited to learn more about tailoring and dressmaking, but all of this was pretty much glossed over and pared down into its most basic form (“I stitched the flowers! So painstaking!! By hand!!”). The “competition” was a mere hundred or so pages, and the rest of the novel turned into a three-step quest filled with predictable plot lines and tragic insta-love.
Lastly, the attempted style was a complete failure for me. While this is a fantasy, it focuses on some fantastical myths and legends, and often deals with abstract concepts as though they were tangible (ie, sewing the blood of stars into a dress). This can work if done well, but unfortunately, I couldn’t help but compare it to Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen, which was written beautifully. Lim just didn’t have the prosaic style for the abstraction. She wrote like an average YA author, and while she was very descriptive, there was no beautiful language to bring these parts of the story to life.