Torn by Rowenna Miller

This is a book I was very excited about, as it features two things I’m very into: textile arts (in this case, sewing) and PLANS TO OVERTHROW THE MONARCHY #TIME4THEPITCHFORKS.

It’s set in Galitha City, the capital of an 18th century-like country, and follows Sophie, a dressmaker with a magical talent for sewing good luck charms into clothing. She and her brother, Kristos, had struggled to scrape by when they were young, but now her little dressmaking shop is picking up and she’s even attracting clients from the nobility. In contrast, Kristos is dissatisfied with the inequality around them and has become involved in an anti-monarchist, pro-workers’ rights movement. Sophie is thus caught between two sides: her business that she’s put so much effort into as well as her noble connections (who are slowly becoming friends — and more), and her community’s struggle for equality as well as the only family she has left. When a radical faction threatens Kristos in order to pressure her into sewing a curse into a garment for the queen, Sophie has to finally decide where her loyalties lie.

What I most appreciated about this book is the amount of attention paid to the complex mixture of various factions and factors involved. The tensions aren’t just between common folk and nobility. Sophie and Kristos are second-generation immigrants whose parents are from the “backwater” country of Pellia. Pellians generally live in their own quarter and are not well-regarded by the average Galithan; although Sophie knows basically nothing about her parents’ homeland, her looks still mark her as “other”. Moreover, her brother and his — mainly male — revolutionary friends struggle to understand Sophie’s specific problems as a female business owner: e.g. if she marries, by law her property will be passed to her husband. On the political front, there’s also a bit of inter-country meddling (a country in revolt is a delightfully weak country); on the personal front, there’s a few grudges that cloud the idea of “just for the good of the people”.

This is thus a very political book, in the sense that it’s concerned with exploring political ideas around in a ~18th century setting. A lot of it is spent in debate and discussion: the idea of noblesse oblige, peaceful campaigning vs bloody revolt… One tidbit that made me grin was Kristos scoffing at the public schools the nobility had opened, reminding Sophie that the real reason behind this apparent generosity was spreading a standard language so that peasants conscripted into the national army could understand their officers. That’s just not a point I see very often outside of my linguistics classes! The situation is so complex and intricate that two-thirds of the way through the book I suddenly realised I actually had no idea who I wanted to “win” in the end.

A book that focuses so much on character interaction is only as good as those characters. I thought they tread the line between sympathetic and frustrating in an interesting way. Sophie is by nature cautious, pragmatic, and prefers the status quo; she’s truly just a “little person” swept up by the problems of the times. I thus found her reactions very understandable and realistic… but also couldn’t help wanting to shake her and yell, “How can you be so sympathetic to these nobles, they were dining on 12-course meals while you were digging for scraps in the trash!” I look forward to seeing how she develops in the sequel.

Of the other major characters, Kristos is a mixture of superb rhetorician and a bit of a man-child in his personal life; the nobility Sophie meets, including a duke she falls for, are kind and fun but embarrassingly privileged and out-of-touch; her two assistants are hard-working and sweet but one is immature and the other a tad xenophobic. To be honest, I did feel that to make the situation less black-and-white all the noble characters were made a lot more personally likable than everyone else. Nevertheless, I liked how realistic the characters’ flaws and the interactions between them were. The one unfortunate exception is the romance between Sophie and the duke, which for me progressed too quickly from a little side flirtation to full-blown romance.

One last aspect of Torn I loved is the magic system itself. Magic is created via art: usually by inscribing little clay tablets with symbols, but Sophie uses embroidery to “stitch” the charm into a garment and even an ephemeral art like singing can be used. I also enjoyed how fluid the charming and cursing was; it’s more about good/bad luck, e.g. luck in love, or a fisherman having a good haul that day, than a concrete magical effect.  It reminded me of traditional beliefs in concepts like the “evil eye” in a fun way. The attitude towards magic is interesting too: in Galitha it’s only practiced by the Pellians and is consequently mainly seen as a quaint little cottage industry. Because it’s not well-respected, instead of a magic academy, the practitioners themselves (mainly women) exchange tips and tricks in get-togethers similar to knitting circles, which I also loved.

In short, I thought that although Torn had a couple issues, it was altogether a strong debut. The story also wraps up in a way that’s satisfying for now but leaves plenty of room for a sequel — one which I’m very excited about! I especially recommend it for:

  • Fans of political fantasy
  • Fans who’ve read a bit too much traditional fantasy and now wanna read about the opposite of the return of a king
  • People looking for a main character who’s a “normal person”
  • People interested in a soft magic system drawing on our world’s traditional magical beliefs
  • Fans of Paula Volsky’s Illusion
  • Anybody who sews/crochets/felts/etc – especially once the audiobook comes out!
  • People who are too lazy to read The Communist Manifesto and just want the highlights

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