3.5/5 stars — a lackluster beginning belies a fiery finish
Unravel the Dusk, the second part of Elizabeth Lim’s Blood of Stars duology, concludes the tale of the magic-wielding tailor who seeks to save herself and her loved ones from the war gripping their land. However, Maia is becoming a danger in her own right: demon-touched and increasingly fueled by anger, she struggles to hold on to her past while also using her new powers against her enemies. While I found Unravel the Dusk a letdown compared to Spin the Dawn—a case of a stellar concept missing a few tricks in execution, in my opinion—I enjoyed the series overall.
I didn’t love this book as much as the previous one for several reasons. First, I enjoyed the deception-based plot elements and art-focused premise of Spin the Dawn; the sequel dispensed with both, since Maia’s secret is out and there’s very minimal sewing, certainly not anything like the luxe masterpieces detailed so wonderfully in book one. Second, while I understand the direction the author intended with making Maia more introspective in this book, it sometimes feels like Maia’s spinning her wheels and rehashing the same worries over and over without anything happening to her character as a result. That’s something that happens in real life, but it doesn’t always make for an interesting read. Third, the stakes never felt intense enough, partially because the book jumps immediately into the action with a high-casualty battle, but Maia’s largely preoccupied with her internal struggle. This continues throughout the novel: people are dying left and right, but Maia is (rightly, but myopically) concerned with the danger she poses as a demon and does more observing than feeling.
Maia spends the book torn between the power of Amana and the demon touch, a struggle which threatens to tear her apart—literally—during the final battle. This was one of my favorite concepts in the story, demonstrated well through Maia’s increasingly conflicted emotions and some new wordbuilding concerning the in-story nature of demons. Lim did a good job of ramping up Maia's spiral into demonhood and her struggle against giving herself over to the demon touch.
I also thought the theme of family added a lot to the richness of the story across both books. Maia never loses sight of her love for her father and surviving brother or forgets the losses of her mother and other brothers—too often, romantic love takes center stage in adventures like this, but Unravel the Dusk balances both. Maia’s character feels most human (no joke intended) when she’s contemplating the joys and pains of love and weighing what she's willing to do for those she values.
On a different note, the author’s treatment of disability frustrated me again in this book. Maia’s surviving brother Keaton, the one she impersonated in the first book, was injured in battle and unable to walk. His recovery was represented as slow and difficult, but in this book, he appears mostly recovered, with a couple of throwaway lines to explain it. This by itself wouldn’t have been awful—I want to talk about how SFF uses disability as a temporary inconvenience when it’s often a lifelong condition, but that’s for another time—except that the first book similarly dismissed disability. In Spin the Dawn, Maia pretending to be disabled struck a sour note for me because of how often disabled people in real life are accused of faking or exaggerating anytime they’re not visibly ill, injured, using a mobility aid, etc. I’m not knowledgeable enough on this subject to feel comfortable saying whether this is a pattern of ableism or merely uncomfortable to read, so I tried not to let it influence my review.
The things that knocked stars off my rating were largely frustrations with how the book was blurbed/advertized versus how the story actually went. This was billed a "sizzling forbidden romance," yet the love interest, Edan, doesn't show up until the second half of the book, and his chemistry with Maia was way better in the previous book. Their ending was sweet and satisfying, but hardly the blistering love story it was presented as. The story was also presented as a mystery, but the only really mysterious element was the presence of a demon controlling and strengthening the enemy leader, revealed fairly early in the first act. The rest was just a question of whether Maia would win her internal battle against the demon Bandur.
In the end, I enjoyed this book only because of how invested I was in Maia and Edan's character arcs from the first book. I wanted to know how things would turn out for them and for Maia's family, but nothing in this book convinced me of the stakes concerning who controlled the country or how the war turned out. Lim writes Maia's magic tailoring well, but action scenes are a weakness for her, and this book had far more of the latter than the former. I recommend Unravel the Dusk to anyone who really, really loved Spin the Dawn, but it weighed down the duology overall.
Content warnings: mention of war-typical death/violence; PTSD-like symptoms from war; pre-story death of several loved ones