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.
This is a book I loved a lot, although I do understand of some the criticisms it’s gotten from other reviewers. The way the story is laid out can make it feel a bit disjointed, but I actually really loved all of the parts that made up the whole. I think it helps that I do enjoy a good romance, especially a bit of the ‘forbidden love’ type, and a lot of the latter part of the book involves a romantic subplot. Yay!
There are so many things I liked about this story. The book can essentially be broken up into several sections. The first part deals with introducing us to Maia and her family, her upbringing and home life. This sets us up for everything to come later by letting us get a good hold of our protagonist and what’s at stake for her. This also starts us from the beginning, as any good epic tale should, we need to know our hero’s origin story. I really loved the way the story is told at this point, the writing is lovely and has a wistful feeling to it creating an atmosphere of bittersweet tinted nostalgia.
Finally we reach the part which launches us into the thick of things, where Maia’s father has been called to serve the emperor but can not due to his illness, so Maia decides to take his place. When they marketed this book as Mulan meets Project Runway, this is the part they are talking about and I have to say as far as x meets y marketing blurbs it was pretty spot on, at least for this part of the book. I can see where people might be disappointed if they were sold on the entire book beeing Mulan meets Project Runway, because it isn’t, but as far as this one section goes I’m quite happy that the story lived up to the marketing. Maia, talented as a tailor but not allowed to showcase her abilities due to being a woman, decides to risk everything and go to the Emperor’s court to compete in a competition to be the court tailor while pretending to be her brother. One of the other tropes I love is girl disguised as a boy. I do love the way the author subverts some of the common trappings of this trope, especially in regards to the romance part of it. This section introduces us to a whole new cast of characters. Suddenly Maia’s world is quite a bit bigger and she has a lot of new things to worry about (the contest, court politics, magic, backstabbing, and a pesky court sorceror who nonetheless intrigues her). The contest moves along pretty swiftly and I’ll admit that I was expecting it to last longer than it did, but overall I was quite happy with it. It was pretty much exactly Mulan meets Project Runway. At one point I think a character even said ‘carry on’ and all I could hear in my head was Tim Gunn.
Once we’re done with the contest section, Maia is tasked with taking on an impossible journey. All of this is to please members of the court, and hey, it’s better than being executed so why not? But don’t worry, Maia isn’t alone and this is where the romance kicks into high gear. This part of the story actually reminded me a lot of the part of The City of Brass where the two main characters are travelling across the land to Daevabad. If you’ve read that, then you’ll know pretty much what to expect in this section–a long trek filled with long periods of our characters getting to know each other and falling in love sprinkled with moments of action where our characters encounter magical beings and seemingly impossible odds they’ll have to overcome. I enjoyed this part of the story a lot too, even though the pacing is quite different here from the previous section, and of course the scope of the story is opened up once again. It’s almost like this story is a set of those nesting dolls except in reverse, each part being a little larger in scope than the previous one.
The thing that anchors the story for me is Maia’s character. She’s the one constant througout. If you don’t connect with her then you’ll probably have a tough time with this one, but thankfully that wasn’t an issue for me. I enjoy a strong female lead, especially a woman who wants to defy the expectations set for her gender. I do appreciate the Maia isn’t a perfect person, she’s subject to all sorts of faults. In the end she’s pushed into making decisions, but if not she would have done it if not as much for her family as her own selfish need to prove that she’s as good as any man. It’s not just a story about honor, there’s definilty a certain amount of pride involved here too. I admit the side characters aren’t quite as nuanced, except for that pesky sorceror. Most of them feel pretty archtypical but that’s fine as they serve their roles in moving the story along, because really this is all about Maia’s journey anyway.
Oh, and I did mention there’s romance. Well, what can I say, I’m a sucker for romance. I enjoyed it a lot here, and even though I could see it coming a mile away the author managed a good balance of tropes, relying heavily on some while turning others on their heads. I appreciated that. I do think, overall, it could come off as something we’ve seen before, but I really don’t mind that at all. I also love how things were left off for us going into the next book because I didn’t entirely expect that.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with this book. It certainly took me on a journey and I can’t wait to see where the story goes in the sequel. 4/5 stars.