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Crewel  - Gennifer Albin 2.5 starsIn a word, I found Crewel inconsistent. The good? The concept. I thought the central idea behind Crewel, returning to the roots of the word “spinster” and the mythology of weaving, was interesting and strong. Albin’s spinsters have the ability to manipulate and repair the weave of their world (the “weave” being the individual strands making up the physical world and the people in it, entwined with the constant flow of time). Weaving is a highly specialised skill requiring particular finesse, and Spinsters are accorded a level of privilege and prestige in the world of Arras, despite the fact that they live effectively cloistered in Coventries and are controlled by the governing Guild. That said, the execution is hit and miss. Albin’s particular take on time and matter and how they can be manipulated is intriguing, but not explored very deeply . This is light science-fiction and as such the worldbuilding assumes a degree of reader buy-in that not all will be able to extend. (When you start messing with time, I start asking questions, and Crewel doesn’t give a lot of answers). However, if you’re willing to suspend some belief and take Albin’s world as she presents it, Crewel’s premise is both inventive and engaging. Adelice has been trained from a young age to conceal her weaving ability by her parents, who have reservations about the governance of the world they live in. Ostensibly crime, poverty and disease-free, Arras is nevertheless a tightly controlled society in which women have little agency and few rights. Segregation of the sexes is widely practiced (at least, partially – Adelice lives in a sector where all children are female, though there are plenty of adult males living there). Travel is severely restricted – reserved for mostly male officials. Food is rationed. Reproduction is regulated. Women who do not exhibit weaving ability are expected to marry, and their employment options are limited. However, due to an unconscious slip during routine testing, Adelice reveals her skill and is forcibly removed from her home to become a Spinster. For me, this where the inconsistency begins. Adelice informs the reader that they come for them at night, vaguely sinister figures who remove girls from their homes under cover of darkness. However, she later explains that girls dream of becoming Spinsters – coveting a life of luxury and status. This doesn’t compute for me. Why remove girls at night in such an intimidating manner if most of them view it as a privilege, something to strive for? After a futile attempt at escape, Adelice is transported to the Western Coventry, unsure of the fate of her mother and sister. Following a short incarceration, during which she grieves over the traumatic circumstances of her removal, Adelice bounces back rapidly. Before long she’s whisked away to the Coventry’s high tower, plied with luxuries, training with the other Eligibles and singled out by a vindictive Spinster, Maela, and the creepy Ambassador Cormac Patton. Because of course, Adelice isn’t just any old prospective Spinster, she’s Super Special. And of course, there are Hot Guys.Strangely, Crewel reminded me in places of The Selection. This is another novel where “purity”, beauty, clothing and make up are given a peculiar amount of attention and almost disproportionate page time. The Spinsters are required to wear dresses and stockings, to be pandered to by personal stylists and domestic staff, to be occasionally squired about by Guild dignitaries as arm decorations at official functions. They are also required to maintain “purity standards”, since Spinster’s abilities are allegedly tied to their virginity. All the while, they’re also apparently ensuring weather, food distribution and the day to day operations of life in Arras run smoothly – though Albin provides minimal detail on how the Spinster’s orchestrate this round the clock. Further, Adelice undergoes something of a transformation - in the hands of her aestheticians she’s a vision of beauty. While I can appreciate that this is part of the world Albin is building, one built on illusion and facades, I’m also perplexed by the amount of time spent on the minutiae of the Spinister’s accoutrements. Comparatively little time is spent on the daily work of the Spinsters, how they operate the looms and manage their considerable responsibilities. Oh, wait, I’m not really. Not when Adelice has the burgeoning attentions to two young men to consider. To be fair, Crewel gains momentum in the second half and the complexity of Arras becomes more interesting. The stakes are raised as Adelice discovers just what nefarious deeds the Guild are capable of, and the potential of her own abilities. Complex ethical questions are hinted at – though mostly brushed over – and Albin uses her secondary characters to challenge and criticise the restrictive world of Arras, including their enforced notions of gender equality, sexuality and free will. But ultimately, I’m left feeling underwhelmed by Crewel. It’s not a bad book, but I feel much of its potential was left untapped. The big reveal at the climax of the novel is clever, and the ending makes the promised sequel enticing, but Crewel also falls into some familiar tropes. While I appreciate Albin’s efforts to imbue Adelice with distinct personality – she’s tenacious and sarcastic – she’s still something of a super special snowflake, a concept I’m thoroughly tired of. A little more clarity around the finer points of weaving and the structure of Arras wouldn’t have gone astray either. It’s an interesting novel, but ultimately, an uneven one.