Sewing as life and death in 'Unravel the Dusk'

Wednesday, July 1, 2020 - 6:27pm

NOSELL

Elizabeth Lim

Elizabeth Lim’s second novel in the Blood of Stars series, “Unravel the Dusk,” reaches deep into your prefrontal cortex and implants a strong desire to embroider and to create. She makes sewing exciting, infusing time consuming, mundane tasks with danger, dignity and purpose. 

In the world of "Unravel the Dusk," embroidery and tailoring is regarded and honored as capital-A Art. The highest title of Master Tailor is reserved only for accomplished men. Women, while able to practice the craft, are hampered by sexism. In the first book, "Spin the Dawn," Maia rebels against the status quo. 

Taught by her aged father, once a Master Tailor, Maia struggles to keep her family shop open after her brothers are drafted into war. After the war ends, Maia has two dead brothers, a crippled brother and a fragile father. When her father is called upon by the emperor to craft clothing for the future empress. Maia worries that her father would not survive the arduous trip. To save what remains of her broken family, Maia passes herself off as her brother and goes to the capital in her father's place. If her deception is discovered, Maia would be executed.

Aided by a divine pair of heirloom shears, Maia undergoes three trials to do the impossible. Maia must retrieve divine materials to craft three legendary dresses: one from the laughter of the sun, one from the tears of the moon and one from the blood of the stars. Edan, the emperor's enchanter, assists her as they travel to the far-flung corners of the land. Edan is revealed to be a jinn, a magician turned genie, bound to a thousand years of servitude. He serves as Maia’s love interest and as a prime example of Lim's cross-cultural exchanges. While the Blood of Stars duology focuses on a single kingdom, the world Lim creates is vast. She allows Chinese folktale and Persian mythology to interact and exist side by side. Jinn magic is not native to the Sino-inspired kingdom; thus, Edan is introduced as an enchanter. The cultural diffusion recalls historical cultural diffusion that occurred because of trade routes like the Silk Road. The small details help anchor Lim's fantasy world and lends it verisimilitude. 

In the second book of the series, Lim focuses more on developing a tight narrative and less on lateral world building. Court politics takes center stage, with Maia attempting to uphold the tenuous peace and her own sanity. In the first book, the three divine dresses serve as Maia's questing goal. They are mythic and unattainable yet vital to preserving peace. In the second book, Maia's central conflict is within herself. She no longer needs to continue crafting with the threat of life or death. Maia already peaked in her tailoring career.

At the conclusion of the first book, the Kingdom plunges back into war with the rebel commander, aided by demonic forces. Maia must rally her allies to combat the demonic threat. Thus, in "Unravel the Dawn," Maia is less a seamstress and more a demon, an agent of war. 

While crafting takes up less space in the second novel, "Unravel the Dawn" still reminds us that there is dignity in working with our hands, producing labors of love, beauty and sweat. Having fewer crafting moments was disappointing but Maia's character transition from creator to destroyer was exciting to read. 

Throughout the Blood of Stars duology, Elizabeth Lim unflaggingly stresses the magic of beautiful art and trade skills while bringing the suspense and drama. She depicts a robust world, fraught with political and social tension. For Maia, sewing is not compliance with the patriarchy. Rather, every stitch is a rebellion, a stand against the patriarchal status quo and looming demonic powers.

Thanks to Elizabeth Lim, in “Unravel the Dawn,” labor-intensive hobbies are reframed as decadently dangerous and exciting. Sewing determines life or death for Maia.