For generations, girls have dreamed of being retrieved by Arras’s Manipulation Services, called to serve their world’s highest purpose, controlling the weave that keeps Arras running smoothly. To be elevated to train as a Spinster means privilege, honor, eternal youth and beauty, but few possess the astonishing ability to weave time with matter. The women who work the looms of Arras have control over life, death, and anything in between, while those who aren’t chosen are quickly married off and given jobs as secretaries or teachers, jobs that won’t interfere with wifely duties.
For the last eight years, Adelice Lewys has lived a lie.
Adelice has been gifted with rare, unimaginable power, and yet, rather than revel in her bright future, her parents have been secretly training her to appear clumsy, graceless, sure to fail the mandatory testing for sixteen year old girls. Though Adelice has no ambition to settle down as a housewife and learn to be presentable with makeup and silk stockings, neither does she fully understand the danger of being a Spinster. When Adelice accidentally slips during her test and weaves a perfect moment in time, she doesn’t realize that her parent’s cautious disobedience has sprung from a dark truth about the corrupt power behind Spinsterhood.
As tragedy hits home, Adelice is thrust into a ruthless power struggle and must decide where her loyalties lie, and how much she would be willing to sacrifice to make her escape. Will she protect her loved ones by keeping to the pattern, or can she break the weave in an attempt to save the world?
Another dystopian YA series, you may ask? Well…yes. But this one is worth a read. No, the worldbuilding isn’t without holes, and yes, there is a ubiquitous, looming love triangle—still, the dynamic pacing is spot-on and there is a refreshingly cerebral bent to the unfolding narrative. In Gennifer Albin’s Crewel, we get an original twist on expected conceits, with a few intriguing classic and contemporary references for discerning readers.
Adelice’s tale is told from a first person perspective (as is to be expected in the current YA/dystopian marketplace), and there is a certain Hunger Games media-and-appearance-influence (with videos streamed of the new Spinsters, who are each assigned a mentor and stylist team). There are also some charming classic influences in Crewel, with a younger sister, who at first glance seems Prim-ish, but is much more similar to a certain, often reviled, younger sister in Little Women. I was intrigued by the combination of science fiction and Greek mythology—a Spinster’s duties of weaving and cutting threads is the most obvious instance of the latter, though here we have removal and reweaving rather than a meted span. I also kept thinking of women trapped by circumstance or position who used weaving to control their fate: Penelope, unraveling her work every night to buy herself more time, and especially Philomela, exposing deceit and horror through a tapestry.
Adelice, prized for her astounding ability to handle materials vital for the weave of Arras, is seen as a necessary but dangerous asset to the Guild of Twelve (the requisite sinister governing body). She’s meant to fall soundly into a crop of sassy, highly capable, no-nonsense protagonists, but for me, something didn’t quite click. Regularly described as intelligent, as a girl who cared more for books and teaching than makeup and pretty dresses, Adelice often came across as judgmental on the girls her age who blindly bought into the social-climbing, seemingly shallow motives of Spinsterhood. Her “spunky intelligence” sometimes read more “bratty and naïve,” and she seemed remarkably sulky and diffident in her purportedly rebellious role, at least for the first half of the book. I also was frustrated by Adelice’s inconstant emotional response and connection to other characters in the book— she seems to quickly move past her initial family tragedy, only to be later monumentally affected by the death of a character who didn’t seem like a close companion. Though I would have liked some more depth of characterization overall (there is a menacing and powerful silver fox, and an almost-too-evil teacher), the emotional resonance of any scene featuring Jost (a swoony love interest) or Loricel (a wonderfully conflicted mentor) made up for my other character complaints. It was nice to see a heroine who truly grows into her cause, from the first bloom of tragedy to the uncovering of the darkest secrets of her world, having to weigh what truly does matter. I’m not sure that Adelice made the right choice in the end, but as this is being laid out for a series, I’m hoping she will valiantly rise to the ultimate occasion.
The world of Arras is clever, though I was frequently skeptical of the physics or mechanics behind this particular dystopian setting, and it was a bit frustrating to have to wait for more detailed explanations about how this woven world was possible. The slow unfolding of background won’t be a good fit for all readers, since many dystopians set up their exposition early in the narrative rather than almost two-thirds of the way through. Still, the descriptions of the process of weaving and the weave itself were lovely, and I hope we will see more of that as the series continues.
I appreciated watching characters confront the distinction between beauty and worth, and realize the limits of power, and I was pleased to see mention of a LGBT romance (since not all of the YA dystopian crop remember that pairings aren’t just male-female). It was also interesting to see how dystopian societies are formed and maintained, and I liked the solemn reminder of why equality is seen as a threat to a certain type of power (and yes, was chilled at the real-life parallels, especially the terrifying gender disparity). Of course, there were some mild quibbles with all of these areas—addressing them here would contain spoilers—but I want to applaud the attempts at inclusion (although, writers, please stop describing people in terms of food). At various points, I was plagued by a troublesome feeling of almost—almost taking the gender inequality to a more direct plot point, almost getting a cast of well-rounded characters, almost reaching another level. A friend and I were discussing storytelling recently, and she pointed out that a traditional reason to write dystopian societies is to critique our current society. In those terms, I just felt that Crewel almost went somewhere more effective and interesting, but decided instead to stick to the current marketplace tropes.
Even so, Crewel is a solid entry into a saturated market, following some familiar tropes but with a welcome, unexpected twist at the end. Though the world of Arras does sometimes fall prey to fallible physics, the premise of a woven existence was original and intriguing, and the moments where Adelice plied her craft were truly delightful. Hopefully we won’t be dragged into another tired love triangle—refreshingly, Adelice seems to be remarkably perceptive when comparing suitors—though that is my personal bias showing, both against the triangle trend in general and because I am solidly Team Jost. There were a few loose plot threads scattered throughout, and one could hope it was in the interest of the next entry in the series. For an alternate look at Arras, I highly recommend Albin’s related short story “The Department of Alterations,” set in the shadowy alleys of Adelice’s hometown. All in all, Crewel introduces a distinctive dystopian society, and the few narrative failings are compensated by moments of emotional heft and lyrical description.
Miriam Weinberg is an Assistant Editor at Tor/Forge. She dreams of having a dragon best friend (named Skysong, preferably, which is also the name of her Nook), and fears that one day she will be found trapped underneath a pile of books in her Brooklyn apartment.
Miriam Weinberg is a Macmillan employee.