Saturday, 27 October 2012

Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Crewel is Gennifer Albin's debut novel and, as I discovered when I reached the end, the first of a series. (Although it's almost self-contained.) A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review. This review contains mild spoilers but nothing major or of plot-related importance.

What first caught my attention was the blurb which I saw reposted somewhere or other online. Copied from Goodreads:
Incapable. Awkward. Artless.
That’s what the other girls whisper behind her back. But sixteen year-old Adelice Lewys has a secret: she wants to fail.

Gifted with the ability to weave time with matter, she’s exactly what the Guild is looking for, and in the world of Arras, being chosen as a Spinster is everything a girl could want. It means privilege, eternal beauty, and being something other than a secretary. It also means the power to embroider the very fabric of life. But if controlling what people eat, where they live and how many children they have is the price of having it all, Adelice isn’t interested.
Not that her feelings matter, because she slipped and wove a moment at testing, and they’re coming for her—tonight.
Now she has one hour to eat her mom’s overcooked pot roast. One hour to listen to her sister’s academy gossip and laugh at her Dad’s stupid jokes. One hour to pretend everything’s okay. And one hour to escape.
Because once you become a Spinster, there’s no turning back.
Of course, the blurb only captures the opening of the novel (as a good blurb ought) and there's much more to the story than I was expecting. The worldbuilding is excellent. I can't argue with the fact that it's a dystopia, but it struck me as a much more realistically built one than, for example, the Divergent/Insurgent universe.

The world runs on magic. They have a level of technology a bit more advanced than ours and, as far as I could tell, magic is what makes it all work. The magic is based around the idea of the world as a tapestry woven from reality. Certain magic users, of varying levels of power control all aspects of the world including crops and food production, birth, death, and weather. The old and dying are woven out of the tapestry to save them the pain and suffering of death, births are scheduled and any dissidents are rewoven to make them better contributing members of society.

Women are the only ones who might have the power to see and manipulate the weave. However, the society is strongly patriarchal. The ordinary citizens live in neighbourhoods segregated by the gender of their children so that under-age boys and girls rarely meet. The girls are all tested for potential Spinster skills at sixteen and then those that aren't called are expected to be married and starting a normal family unit by the age of eighteen after meeting potential suitors in very controlled environments. Homosexuality is, of course, dangerous deviant behaviour (and I liked that the author bothered to address this directly — albeit briefly — instead of just ignoring it). The evil patriarchy aspect lacks some subtlety, but that's OK because not everything has to be subtle to be a real threat.

All the girls aspire to be called by the Guild to be Spinsters because if they're not they're stuck being secretaries and assistants or maybe nurses. Only men are allowed to have Real and Important jobs. Needless to say, despite women having all the magical power, the Guild is run by men. Spinsters get to live in the lap of luxury, but it's very much a gilded cage, as Adelice quickly realises. They're never allowed to leave, but at least they get to look pretty! The fact that Albin touched on the ways in which clothing can be used to restrict freedom was one of my favourite things. Sure, Adelice's complaints about some of the clothes being uncomfortable might seem trivial on the surface but being forced to wear a dress with no underwear to a ball then not having time to change properly afterwards isn't exactly liberating. At least she's allowed to wear pants sometimes, just not while she's being a doll on a Guild official's arm.

Adelice isn't stupid. She starts off a bit naïve, but less so than the other girls because her parents prepared her to fail her spinning test. Her parents didn't tell her everything, though, and she doesn't adjust that well to the gilded (and sometimes dank and stony) cage she's thrust into. There was a minor twist which I suspected before Adelice worked it out, but I was gratified that she did work it out herself; I was expecting her to be surprised when someone finally told her. She makes a few dangerous decisions, mostly relating to not being a docile drone, but these seem entirely in keeping with her character. Looking back with end-of-book hindsight, playing along better would probably not have made as much difference as she hopes.

I think I've probably prattled on long enough about Crewel, which I enjoyed very much. I recommend it to YA dystopia fans, of course, but also to anyone interested in a not too heavy feminist book. I enjoyed how the author used her heavily patriarchal world to emphasise some aspects of oppression. But if that's not your thing, it's possible to read the book as just another dystopian society shrouded in secrecy and not worry about the gendered power-plays.

4.5 / 5 stars


  1. Book Whales27/10/12 13:51

    I just finished reviewing this book and rated it 4.5 stars too. Glad that you like it as much as I did. :D Great Review.


  2. What I find really interesting is how wildly different some of the reviews on GR and LT are. It ranges from 2 to 5 stars and most of the people who liked it, liked it for completely different reasons to me! I suspect only really good books (or, heh, really bad but this definitely falls into the good category) can provoke such a spectrum of reactions.