Book: “Torn” by Rowenna Miller
Publishing Info: Orbit, March 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!
Book Description: Sophie is a dressmaker who has managed to open her own shop and lift herself and her brother, Kristos, out of poverty. Her reputation for beautiful ball gowns and discreetly-embroidered charms for luck, love, and protection secures her a commission from the royal family itself — and the commission earns her the attentions of a dashing but entirely unattainable duke.
Meanwhile, Kristos rises to prominence in the growing anti-monarchist movement. Their worlds collide when the revolution’s shadow leader takes him hostage and demands that Sophie place a curse on the queen’s Midwinter costume — or Kristos will die at their hand.
As the proletariat uprising comes to a violent climax, Sophie is torn: between her brother and the community of her birth, and her lover and the life she’s striven to build.
Review: I love to cross-stitch, have loved it for years since I learned to stitch as a little girl. It’s also a handy hobby to support a very unhealthy Netflix binging habit. But it’s also a less common craft nowadays. I have a bunch of friends who knit, a couple of crocheters, but none of my friends embroider. So I was stoked when I saw this book coming this spring from Orbit. A fantasy novel where embroidery IS the magic? I immediately requested a copy and started reading when it arrived (though this then lead to mental confusion: should I READ about embroidery or actually DO my embroidery? Which will be more fun?!?!)
Sophie is a successful business woman, and in a land that is highly regulated with limited mobility for common folk, she is unique in her quick rise. But she possesses a special skill, the ability to sew charms into her elaborate garments. However, her clientele, the nobility of the city, put her in the awkward position of hovering between the wealthy aristocrats whom she serves and the poorer working class where she was born and still lives. Just as she begins to break into this upper class of clients (maybe even a dress commission for the princess and queen!), things begin to go sideways, starting with her brother, Kristos, who is leading a grassroots revolution. Tensions rise as Kristos and his ilk push against the restrictions of their current lives and Sophie tries to balance her ties to her brother, while also maintaining her relationship with her noble clients. But the situations is untenable, and eventually, something will fall…
I always love unique magic systems. There are far too many that simply say “and then magic!” But here, Miller has brilliantly mixed a subtle sort of magic in with a task that is often brushed aside as menial. It is a clever expansion on the “hedge witch” motif that so often appears in the background of other novels, women with barely understood abilities that they tie to the work of their gender, often in cooking and healing. It’s a clever way of taking a domestic task and imbuing it with power, all while acknowledging the value of the task itself, with or without magical elements. All along, Sophie’s success comes not only from her magical abilities, but from her acumen as a business woman and her sheer skill at constructing and predicting fashion.
Sophie also only has a limited understanding of how exactly her charms work, so as the book progresses, the reader gets to explore the inner workings and expanding possibilities of charms alongside her. But from the beginning, I enjoyed the small scenes of her sewing light into garments. It was such a peaceful, lovely image, especially for someone who sews herself.
Other than the magical elements, the majority of the story is devoted to the growing unrest between Kristos’s revolution and the nobility whom Sophie works with and befriends. Miller presents an excellent exploration of what it means to exist between the battle lines of a revolution such as this. When evaluating history, it’s too easy to slot everyone into one camp or the other, but to do so is to ignore what has to be the large number of individuals who just want to go about their lives, understanding the positions of both parties. Sophie has familial ties on one hand and a general sympathy to the plight of the less lucky commoner, but she also has faces to put to the nobility, and through her work with them, understands them to be individuals with their own worries and concerns. At its core, this is a story of the line where idealism meets pragmatism, and the truth of what revolt and revolution looks like for all involved.
The book isn’t perfect, however, and it was perhaps a bit long for my taste. The story begins to sag a bit towards the middle as Sophie struggles to find her role in this building conflict. It also focuses heavily on the ins and outs of her day-to-day life and work in the shop. I enjoyed many of these details, but it might be a struggle for others who are looking for a more action-packed story.
It also has a sweet romantic plot line. While I enjoyed Theodore, and thought that his and Sophie’s relationship was developed well, I also never became fully attached to it. I’m not sure why, really. I very much enjoyed Sophie as a character, but I think maybe Theodore was also a bit TOO perfect, which made him a bit less interesting. This is a minor quibble, however.
All in all, I really enjoyed “Torn.” It stands out as a unique in several ways, presenting a magical system built around a common, domestic task, as well as its close examination of what the middle ground could look like in the midst of a brewing revolution. For fans of classic fantasy, and those who are ok with a slower building read, definitely check out “Torn.”
Rating 7: Magical sewing and an introspective story of revolution make this a fun read, if a bit slower read.
“Torn” is a newer book so isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Crafty Magic.”
Find “Torn” at your library using WorldCat!