★★★☆☆ // ★★★★☆
3.5 Stars (Rounds up on Goodreads)
The only reason this isn’t a solid 4-star read for me is that the pacing, I felt, had issues.
The actual “Project Runway” style challenges were glossed over extremely quickly. They felt rather forced and stiff, and so did Maia’s relationship with magic (she hates it, but she loves it, but she doesn’t believe in it, but now she does, but she thinks it’s cheating, but it isn’t and we aren’t sure why).
This is a Mulan-inspired story, right? So we can all safely assume that at some point, someone, somehow, discovers she is a woman? When this happens, it’s also rather glossed over and stiff. You can tell the author put the most love and attention into the second half of this book/ If she had spent more time on the first half, though, it could have been split into two books — since the disconnect between the two halves already make it feel like two volumes in a series, honestly.
The magic used by the court magician, Edan, is significantly more fleshed out and easier to understand. Without spoilers: The author puts certain checks and balances on his power that work quite well and help the story along, as well as flesh out his character. The worldbuilding as it pertains to his backstory was lovely.
As I mentioned earlier, the first and second halves of this book were quite different. I enjoyed the second half significantly more, though it took me longer to get through. I flew through the first half because everything happened insanely quickly, then the book seemed to get a second lease on life and started on a whole epic quest situation. I had a bit of fatigue at that point — it felt like the book should have ended after the initial trials and plot twist(s), but instead, it continued on into a whole other story. But once I got into that second story, it was much more interesting and I did enjoy it.
Overall, if the concept of “Project Runway and Mulan-inspired Fantasy” intrigues you as much as it did me, I do highly recommend you give this a read. It’s a fun little fantasy that has a fairly unique premise.