By Alana Joli Abbott
Being Editor in Chief at Outland is only one of the hats I wear; I’m also a reader and reviewer, and I’ve been lucky enough to cover some of what I read over at Den of Geek. In summer 2019, I coined the hashtag #Stitchwitchery to describe a phenomenon that fascinated me: the combination of magic and sewing, which was explored in two current series, Rowenna Miller’s “The Unraveled Kingdom” and Elizabeth Lim’s “Blood of Stars.” When both of those series concluded this summer, there was no question I’d want to read them!
Although a lot of fantasy disdains sewing, using a rejection of sewing as an expression of feminism, there’s also a solid history of stitching magic, especially in middle grade and young adult fantasy. Among these, Sophie of Howl’s Moving Castle, by fantasy luminary Diana Wynne Jones, sews charms, and Alanna of the seminal “Song of the Lioness” quartet by Tamora Pierce learns thread magic. (Elyse Martin covers these and others in greater detail in an excellent article at Tor.com.) Miller and Lim both start from a somewhat different place than these earlier works however: both their protagonists begin their stories as women with careers in sewing. Sophie Balstrade of Torn, Fray, and Rule, is a seamstress with her own shop, while Maia Tamarin of Spin the Dawn and Unravel the Dusk is her tailor father’s apprentice—and, truly, the one who does most of the work in their struggling shop. Because Maia is a girl, she’s not allowed to become a tailor herself, until a competition to become the Imperial Tailor sets her on a path to disguise herself as her brother in order to compete.
Sophie has long used charm casting as a way to enhance the clothing she sells—it’s a hook for well-off clients to come and purchase from her instead of her competition. Maia has no idea that she has magical talent until she’s already competing for the position of Imperial Tailor: a gift of magical scissors that work for only a properly gifted tailor enable her to improve her creations. Both Sophie and Maia live in nations on the brink of Civil War. In Sophie’s nation, nobility has long taken advantage of the working classes, and though a Reform Bill passes in the second book, in an attempt to address some of the worst inequalities, traditional Royalists reject the bill in a bid to restore their traditional version of justice, sending the entire country spiraling into violence. In Maia’s country, the Emperor and the shansen, his warlord, have come to an uneasy truce, dependent on the marriage between the Emperor and the shansen’s daughter—who has no interest in marrying him, even for the sake of peace. Sophie and Maia’s abilities thrust them into the center of those conflicts, and force both of them to expand their magic into something bigger, more powerful—and more terrifying.
In Maia’s case, her struggle to save her nation and Edan, the enchanter whom she comes to love over the course of the first novel, leads her on the path to becoming a literal demon. She trades her humanity to save others, and it’s there we begin her journey in Unravel the Dusk. In the fairy tale-like story of the first novel, she creates three enchanted dresses made from impossible materials: the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars. Each of those dresses comes to represent part of her: her body, her mind, and her heart. When she sacrifices the power of the dresses, she loses more of herself to the demon she is becoming: her body no longer feels, and she loses the memories of everyone she loves. Maia and Edan work to free her from her transformation, even while Maia believes they are doomed to fail. She dedicates herself to bringing peace to her kingdom before the transformation steals even that dream from her.
Sophie struggles to remain neutral in Torn, while the revolutionaries manipulate her into using her magic for nefarious purposes. Despite her ill feelings about their means (and her brother’s own role in putting her in harm’s way), she takes up the cause of the common people in Fray, only to have those efforts crash around her. When we begin Rule, she is fully committed to taking back her country from the Royalitsts who have overthrown the rule of law—the king among them. Her betrothed, Theodore, the prince, leads the army alongside Sophie’s revolutionary brother and a tactician Sophie met in her travels. Sophie is their secret weapon: far from being able to only stitch charms into fabric, as she had in the first book, she’s learned to pull magic—both charm and curse—from the world around her, and imbue materials with that power. It’s unpredictable how the materials will respond, but that edge could be the very thing that wins the war. And yet, Sophie never wanted to be a fighter, and she struggles with how the magic is changing her, and the world, even while she believes that a united, democratic nation will be worth the sacrifice.
It's unusual for me to find two series that pair so well together, especially when they start from similar ideas. But these two series are not only excellent alone, but their synchronicity across very different settings allows each to enhance the reading of the other. The “Blood of Stars” duology is beautiful fantasy that mixes familiar European fairy tale tropes with Asian folklore, and the characters Maia befriends—as well as her adversaries—are compellingly drawn, with the feeling of deep backstories of their own. “The Unraveled Kingdom” trilogy begins in a French Revolution style setting, where many of the most sympathetic characters are among the nobility, but expands into something much broader by the end, with characters from many nations working together to create a better world, where everyone’s voice may be heard. Lim’s books have a somewhat softer feel, and a world full of more dangerous magic—as well as a happy ending. Miller’s world has less ambient magic and a bit more tragedy, including a heart-wrenching twist in the last quarter of the third novel that I did not expect.
Both of these authors really bring home their concluding books, creating strong endings to their protagonists’ stories. I highly recommend them both—not only to people who enjoy working with their own needle and thread, but to readers like me, who view the act of sewing as a bit of mysterious, real-world magic.