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Staff Picks: “Crewel” by Gennifer Albin

So, there are a lot of dystopian YA novels out there, and a whole new crop of them this fall. In fact, there were so many I had to update my If you liked The Hunger Games”  flowchart (and I still feel like I’m leaving some out).

Despite the seemingly endless supply of novels about a teen challenging the authority of their seemingly perfect yet obviously malicious society, none are quite like Crewel by Gennifer Albin.

The world of Crewel, Arras, is your basic dystopian on the surface; personal decisions we take for granted, like what job we’ll have, who we’ll marry, and how many children we’ll have, are all dictated by the state. Of course, they provide for your most basic needs, so there’s not much cause for complaint.

Arras is ruled by the Guild, who control the Spinsters, or those with the special ability to weave time and matter. The concept behind Crewel is fascinating. I loved the passages where Adelice is weaving time and learning about how Spinsters create and control life in Arras. It’s kind of like the mythology of the Fates crossed with the mythology of The Matrix. Though I personally wish there would have been more of a sci-fi component, it worked as the basis for this fantasy world.

Spinsters are revered by society. They get to wear fancy dresses and attend exclusive parties. They have power others do not. They are special. Who wouldn’t want to be a Spinster? Well, Adelice doesn’t want to be one. When she showed an aptitude for weaving as a child, her parents began secretly training her to disguise her talent so she could deliberately fail the tests administered to teens and stay near her family.

But during testing, she slips, and for a second, demonstrates her uncanny ability: she can weave without a loom. Just as she suspects, the authorities come for her at night. And thus beings Adelice’s journey.

Adelice is a likable character. She’s snarky, and her sarcastic dialogue was delightful. I like a heroine with sass, and Adelice certainly delivered. Her ability to see the strands of time and matter, to pull them apart and stitch them back together, could have made her haughty or self-important, but she remains down-to-earth and loyal to those she cares about even when she’s being tempted with an extravagant life that most girls in Arras dream of having one day.

Like so many YA novels, this one features a love triangle — Erik, the charming blond, and Jost, the quiet, dark-haired boy. Yet they both have those piercing blue eyes…

While it was awfully convenient that these two young men happen to be available to help Adelice once she’s been taken by the Guild, and doubly convenient that they both have feelings for her (though she only seems to have romantic feelings for one…) this “love triangle” didn’t immediately turn me off the way some do. The twist at the end (I’m trying not to spoil) made me want to find more about their pasts, which I already found compelling.

I love a good villain, and this was where Crewel did leave me a bit disappointed. Ambassador Cormac Patton, while lecherous and repugnant, didn’t seem to have much depth or motivation. The ambitious, jealous, Spinster who is responsible for Adelice’s training but mostly just torments and humiliates her, is very one-dimensional. As I’m fond of imagining stories from other character’s points of view, I found myself wondering what made her tick, what her story was, but sadly, it was never revealed. The Guild is the true antagonist, as they are the ones who control the Spinsters and dictate the pattern of the weave that is the world of Arras, but we learn so very little about them. I guess that’s what sequels are for…

In the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale My Margaret Atwood, Crewel had the potential to be read as a feminist text. While Spinsters, and particularly the Creweler, who is the only one who can gather the raw materials that Spinsters weave to make the world of Arras, are the ones with the power, they are controlled by the men of the Guild. Even women who don’t have the talent for weaving and live “normal” lives are only permitted to work in subservient service positions. Spinsters and regular citizens alike are objectified and forced to conform to a very sexualized vision of femininity. Throw in some illicit lesbian relationships, and you’ve got the perfect set up for a critique of patriarchy…but Crewel just didn’t pack enough of a punch to meet my feminist expectations. Of course, there are always those sequels.

Despite being less than perfect, Crewel is a stand-out addition to the young adult dystopian romances that are still all the rage. It’s a highly readable, inventive, and well-written novel that I anticipate will be a hit, especially with fans of Delirium by Lauren Oliver and The Selection by Kiera Cass. It’s certainly the most creative and unique dystopian world I’ve come across this year.

– Molly, YA 

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