Like the supernatural YA extend-a-fad, the dystopian craze has longstanding roots in literary culture. From classics like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 481, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ayan Rand’s Anthem to Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, current dystopian fiction reworks a pre-existing creative framework for young adult readers. Repressive, seemingly utopian societies built on histories of violent destruction offer an ideal dramatic climate for exploring coming-of-age issues like romance, rebellion, and individuality.
The success of series such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, much like Twilight for supernatural YA, has glutted the bookshelves of libraries and bookstores, and the inboxs of publishers with droves of knock-offs aiming to cash in on a hot fad.
Amidst this cacophony of creative (and less creative) titles, Crewel stands out from the crowd. Crewel explores the life of heroine Adelice, a girl gifted with the ability to weave the time and matter which constitute all of Arras, a post-apocalyptic dystopian society built on the ruins of the mostly forgotten planet Earth. Taught to hide her “talent” by her duly wary parents, Adelice tries to trick officials and flee from the duties and isolation that come with the coveted position of a “Spinster.” For, as the double entendre suggests, Spinsters are expected to maintain purity standards by remaining single. She cannot, however, escape the hands of the all-powerful Guild of Arras, the oligarchical male rulers, who force her to train as a Spinster.
Described by Albin herself as “Mad Men meets Hunger Games,” part of what distinguishes Crewel is its focus on government-mandated gender roles and norms. Albin takes the sexism of the 1950s and 1960s to the extreme, trapping women in subservient positions in the workplace and in the family home. Genders are segregated in the formative years of youth, leaving little room for romance, while young girls are expected to uphold purity standards until they can be tested for weaving potential. As a category apart, Spinsters simultaneously break with this norm and uphold it. They fill essential roles of power which men cannot touch, while they perpetuate the female standards of beauty, grace, and obedience in Arras, often serving as “arm candy” for powerful male politicians.
The depth and originality of Albin’s worldbuilding and the distinctive voice of her heroine Adelice make Crewel an engrossing, if rapid read. On many occasions, I found myself wishing Albin would spend longer walking the reader and Adelice through the rules and intricacies of Arras. Albin throws readers into the action of the book and expects them to swim. This does amp up the excitement in Crewel, adding velocity which keeps you spinning through the novels many well-plotted twists and turns. At the same time, many questions remain unanswered and the ending of the book comes abruptly, leaving me wondering if this might be a time when editors trimmed too much from the original manuscript.
Likewise, the romance in Crewel comes off as hurried. Years of repressive purity standards aside, Adelice quickly throws herself into the arms of two of the hunkiest boys around–cue love triangle. As with many, if not most, YA writers, Albin does not take enough time to build the relationship between her heroine and the heroine’s love interests before inducing lip-lock, leaving the romance with a hollow feeling. Crewel would have been a stronger book if Albin had made readers wait for their romantic payoff until the second forthcoming novel in the series. Masterful YA writers like Tamora Pierce have perfected this “love timeline,” forcing readers to wait just long enough to make the relationships meaningful without depriving readers too long.
Nonetheless, these foibles do not diminish Crewel as a wonderful book for avid readers of dystopian YA. Loveable characters, lively prose, and a well-woven world make Crewel a treat.