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Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Maia Tamarin is a seamstress, living and working with her father and three brothers in the family’s tailor shop – until the Emperor’s war with the shansen, A’landi’s most powerful warlord.  The youngest of the three, Keton, came home unable to walk – and Finlei and Sendo did not come home at all.  In the wake of her father’s grief, it is Maia who holds her shattered family together, and Maia who takes over the family business, even though no girl can ever aspire to become a master tailor.

The bloody civil war concludes with a treaty and a marriage contract between the Emperor and the shansen’s daughter, Lady Sarnai.  And with the engagement, the Emperor summons the twelve most talented tailors in A’landi to the summer palace to create a wardrobe for his reluctant bride-to-be.  The catch?  There is only one imperial tailor, and the twelve must compete for the position.

Maia’s Baba is one of the twelve tailors summoned, but he is much too weak to travel.  Keton cannot walk, and besides, he can barely sew on a button, much less design a royal wardrobe.  But Maia?  She knows her skills with the needle are unmatched.  But women are not allowed to compete, so, disguising herself as her brother, and with Baba’s gift of her grandmother’s possibly magical scissors, she sets off to the palace, knowing that if her secret is discovered, she will surely be executed.

What awaits her there is more splendid, and more dangerous, than anything she could have ever imagined.  Political alliances and court rivals are nothing compared to the brutal competition between the tailors as each rushes to satisfy Lady Sarnai’s almost impossible demands in the most stunning, unique way possible.  There’s also the ever-present form of Lord Edan, the Emperor’s Lord Enchanter, who Maia is sure must know her secret.  There is something so piercing about his yellow eyes – or are they blue? – that discomfits Maia, and it’s not just the fact that he is rumored to wield the magic of the gods.  But it is when Lady Sarnai makes the most impossible of demands – that Maia make her the three fabled dresses spun from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars – that Maia’s dedication to her family, her craft, and her belief in herself will truly be tested.

Spin the Dawn has been described as Mulan crossed with Project Runway, and it did not disappoint on either front!  This book has it all – an epic quest to impossible places, gorgeous gowns, cutthroat palace politics, heart-pounding danger, more than a touch of magic, and a deliciously swoony romance.  Maia is brave, determined, completely devoted to her family, and never backs down, even when all seems lost.  She’s also amazing with a needle and her grandmother’s magic scissors – I only wish I could have her on hand for my next formal event.  Fantasy readers, rejoice – your next adventure is here!

And, if you can’t get enough East Asian-inspired fantasy worlds, don’t forget to add Renee Ahdieh’s Flame in the Mist duology to your reading list – more girl-in-disguise fabulousness!

The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons

Book jacket cover of Black Leopard Red WolfSo I’ve got this list of 25 great fantasy series. I don’t change it terribly often and almost never for the first book in a projected longish series. I had to make an exception for The Ruin of Kings because I liked it that much. And not just me. Starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist.  Rave reviews from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. And perhaps most surprising to me, Kirkus (whose reviewers tend toward the critical) gave it a starred review, writing: “The story begins in a jail cell with a young man named Kihrin being guarded by Talon, a beautiful and monstrous shape-shifting assassin. Kihrin, awaiting what will surely be his death, begins telling her his life story. Talon complements Kihrin’s tale with her own memories of the past few years, and, together, they weave a jaw-dropping, action-packed story of betrayal, greed, and grand-scale conspiracy. It all begins when Kihrin—a thief who has been raised in the slums by a compassionate blind musician—witnesses a horrific murder while robbing a house. The sudden target of a group of morally bankrupt, and terrifyingly powerful sorcerers, Kihrin finds himself on the run. During his flight, he discovers that he may be the son of a depraved prince—and that the necklace he wears around his neck may be much more than a sentimental object from his long-dead mother. While the comparisons to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle will be unavoidable—in terms of story structure and general narrative content—the potential of this projected five-book saga may be even greater. Although a cast of well-developed characters and an impressively intricate storyline power this novel, it’s Lyons’ audacious worldbuilding that makes for such an unforgettable read. In a sprawling, magic-filled world populated by gods, dragons, krakens, witches, demons, ghosts, shape-shifters, zombies, and so much more, Lyons ties it all together seamlessly to create literary magic. Epic fantasy fans looking for a virtually un-put-down-able read should look no further.” I agree!

Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James

Book jacket cover of Black Leopard Red WolfThis book has been getting major buzz and showing up on a lot of “Best of” lists already. No less a superstar author than Neil Gaiman loved it (“Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the kind of novel I never realized I was missing until I read it. A dangerous, hallucinatory, ancient Africa, which becomes a fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made, with language as powerful as Angela Carter’s. It’s as deep and crafty as Gene Wolfe, bloodier than Robert E. Howard, and all Marlon James. It’s something very new that feels old, in the best way. I cannot wait for the next installment.”) Other reviews are equally enticing: Booklist wrote “[t]he first installment in the Dark Star trilogy has been touted as an ‘African Game of Thrones,’ and, indeed, James, author of the Man Booker Prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), throws pretty much every fantasy and horror creature known into this brilliantly chaotic mash-up of genres and styles. Readers will discover mermaids, vampires, zombies, and witches, along with edge-of-your-seat chills and cheeky humor. James’ tale digs its hooks in and never lets go, rather like the claws of the flesh-eating Zogbanu trolls, or the teeth of a vicious ghommid. Yet for all the fantasy and action, James never loses sight of the human story as his hero, Tracker, searches for the truth about a mysterious boy. Tracker’s quest across wildlands and through cities brings him tantalizingly closer to the elegant, shape-shifting Leopard. James’ world building weaves in cultural references from Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Burkina Faso, and Senegal as he spins his griot’s tale of love, revolutions, murder, and magic. Gender-bending romance, fantastical adventure, and an Afrocentric setting make for an inventive and engaging read.” Definitely on my to read list!