I’m a sucker for unique expressions of magic in fantasy novels. When I found out that Rowenna Miller’s novel Torn was the story of seamstress who sews enchantments into her bespoke garments, I knew I had to read it… especially when I saw the gorgeous cover design.
Side note: How do you feel about this style of fantasy novel cover? I love covers that are evocative of the mood of the story, versus the more traditional painted scene, which often doesn’t quite match up with a real scene from the book and has characters that look different from how I pictured them in my mind. Do you have a favorite recent book cover? Let me know in the comments
Torn is the first book in a trilogy, which I didn’t realize when I started it. It tells the story of Sophie, a woman who owns her own atelier. Sophie’s niche is that she can work charms while she sews, attracting good fortune, health, or love to her clients. She longs to also be recognized for her excellent draping and sewing skills, and to attract the eye of more wealthy noble clients so that she can have more financial security and also keep paying her assistants fair wages.
Sophie’s brother Kristos is an activist arguing to replace the nobility with a democratic government. He and his fellow day laborers and tradesmen feel like the nobility make it unduly difficult for people to find work and thrive in the city.
Our protagonist finds herself torn between sympathy for the plight of the workers, and her own ambitions — especially since her shop keeps a roof over her brother’s head while he’s writing pamphlets decrying the very people who Sophie does business with.
It can be a pleasant change of pace to read a fantasy novel where a lot of the conflict comes from a personal struggle, versus an epic battle for the fate of the world, or a grand quest.
That said, I found myself a bit impatient with Sophie. While I really respected her dedication to her art and craft, and to owning her own business and her care for the assistants she employed, her attitude reminded me too much of the people who complain when protesters interfere with their commute. Sophie agrees that it’s unfortunate when day laborers can’t get ahead, when non-nobles like her brother can’t attend university despite their brilliance, but she can’t support any action that might jeopardize her business. So could the protesters just stick with, y’know, pamphlets, and maybe not actually protest?
Although to be fair to Sophie, her attitude is somewhat understandable because the nobles don’t seem that bad. They’re rich and clueless, rather than actively malicious. The leadership doesn’t want to give in to any of the requests or demands of the activists because they don’t want to be seen as weak, but a lot of the nobles are sympathetic to the rights of the workers and open to making some changes.
To be honest, I didn’t find myself sympathetic to either side. The revolutionaries had plenty of time and money to sit in bars and cafes discussing their goals. The nobles weren’t particularly villainous and the protesters weren’t particularly heroic. Perhaps this is more realistic. Real life has a lot of shades of grey. But while greyness often denotes a certain mix of good and bad, in this case it felt more like a lack of color. Neither group made a compelling argument.
I’ve read a lot of books with the revolution/anarchy theme. It’s a pretty common trope in steampunk, and I read a lot of steampunk a few years back when it was The Big Thing. I honestly got kind of bored of the “revolution against a corrupt monarchy” thing, and so for me to really enjoy such a story, it needs to have some real oomph or a unique twist. This one just fell flat.
My other complaint was that Sophie herself felt like way too passive of a character. Too often, she let things happen to her, and waited around, rather than taking action. Perhaps this is believable for a woman who just wants to be a shopkeeper, but I like my Strong Female Protagonists to be out there kicking butt and taking name.
I don’t give books a star rating on this site, but over on Goodreads this is going to get a solid three stars. It’s pretty well-written. Rowenna Miller is good with a turn of phrase. Plus if you love historic clothing and costumes, you’ll probably enjoy the descriptions of dresses and Sophie’s shop. I just wish I liked the story as much as I liked the writing that held it all together.
Pros: Good excuse to Google historic clothing styles, gorgeous cover, elegant prose.
Cons: Passive heroine, weak revolutionary storyline.
Conclusion: This author shows promise but I won’t be reading the rest of the trilogy. Potential readers should consider what they like most in a story before picking this one up.
Torn by Rowenna Miller is coming March 20th from Orbit Books. Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with a digital ARC.
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