"They came in the night. Once, families fought them, neighbors coming to their aid. But now that peace has been established, and the looms proven, girls pray to be retried. They still come at night, but now it's to avoid the masses with eager hands. It's a blessing to touch a Spinster as she passes. That's what they tell us." (Opening paragraph, Crewel by Gennifer Albin)
I first found out about the book Crewel from Margot Wood, the Real Fauxtographer. I had no idea at the time that she did her photograph that Crewel was not yet published and was confused because I hadn't heard of it. Then, when we asked Gennifer Albin to be a part of the It Came from a Book contest, I thought I should try and read the book. I had no idea what to expect and had little knowledge of the plot, but I dove right in.
Let me start right now by saying this: I love science fiction. Not just dystopian, but complex world building science fiction that defies imagination - and I have been waiting all year for some amazing science fiction. Not just good science fiction, but holy crap jaw dropping intricately developed science fiction. And in Crewel, I have finally found this year's masterpiece.
Crewel is a little bit Lois Lowry's Giver and Gathering Blue, with some Margaret Atwood let's examine the role of women and a dash of Orson Scott Card thrown in, in this instance The Tales of Alvin Maker series. I read the Tales of Alvin Maker years ago and the part that has stayed with me is the concept he puts out there of these weavers. Here, these women sit at looms and weaves people's threads together. When the threads are drawn to each other and cross, their lives become a part of one another's story. It was such hauntingly beautiful imagery and made sense in the context of his fantasy series as a way to explain how people's lives came together and apart.
Crewel takes the concept of weaving and expands on it to the nth degree. In Crewel, some women are knowns as spinsters (an interesting play on words if you recall what unmarried women used to be referred to in the olden days) and they literally spin the fabric of space and time and people. Their skills, their talent, help keep the world of Arras going. Without them, the world would cease to exist. You would think that with such incredible power women would be respected, but that is not the case in this world that is ruled by the Guild, a group of power hungry men.
Adelice has been trained her whole life to fail the Spinster testing when it comes, but she seems to have a natural gift. She has a higher calling than she can ever imagine, but what if she doesn't want it? This is one of the overriding themes in the world of Crewel: should you get to choose your own destiny? Self-will is a major theme in a lot of ya fiction out there right now, and rightly so given where teens are at developmentally, and given the slippery slope you see happening in our country for the last 10 years. And if you have been paying any attention in the news lately, you know that we are once again having disturbing dialogues about the rights and role of women in our country. While as a nation we are once again discussing whether or not women should stay in abusive marriage and have access to birth control to determine their own reproductive fate, Adelice finds herself living in a world ruled by men in ways we hope to never see happen.
In this world, the sexes are segregated. Women are given menial tasks, assigned based on their perceived skills. It is only the role of Spinster, one who sits at the looms and weaves, that has any type of honor to go with it. But if you are called to be a Spinster, you are taken in the middle of the night to the Coventry where you are never to see your family again. There are too many secrets there, secrets the Guild doesn't want the public to know, so there is no turning back.
Adelice is a wonderful female character in a world that wants to control her. She is intelligent, quick witted, silver tongued, and assertive. She uses all of these skills to try and assess her situation and play the game to stay alive while still maintain the essence of who she is and what she believes. Albin writes Adelice in such a way that even when she bats her eyelashes and snuggles up to the bad guy, the reader clearly knows that she is in control of the situation and using their own weaknesses against them. Not that she has complete knowledge or power of the situation, she does in fact have a huge learning curve. Thankfully, she makes some allies along the way to help her suss out the situation. And in this world, she needs allies because she has some pretty powerful enemies.
The world of Arras is in and of itself a rich, fully developed construct. Yet Albin takes this sci fi novel a step further when she pulls back the magic curtain and reveals that all is not right in the land of Oz. Here we have some jaw dropping reveals that just amp up the sci fi elements and take Crewel to the next level of awesome. There are so many questions to be answered, not just about the fate of Adelice and her love (there is a nice little love story in there), but about the world of Crewel itself both past, present and future.
This is some sophisticated science fiction that requires a sophisticated reader. The world of Crewel is unique and it takes a while to get some of the terminology and constructs down in your head. And it is teeming under the surface with rich discussions about things like responsibility to society, free will, the role of women, revolution, and more. Although there are elements of the story that will make you go "this seems familiar" (and how can it not with the overabundance of dystopian fiction out there right now), in the end this is a really unique world with an interesting reveal. And depending on how Albin develops the story, Crewel could very well be this generation's The Handmaid's Tale. 5 out of 5 stars.
Crewel by Gennifer Albin will be published in October of 2012 by Farrar, Struas, and Giroux. ISBN 9780374316419. This review refers to an unpublished arc and there may be changes before publishing.