Adelice Lewys has been trained from a young age to hide her ability to weave the matter of Arras, the world in which she lives. Those blessed (or cursed) with this talent are taken at age 16 to be Spinsters. Without the Spinsters, Arras would fall apart and people would die. The Spinsters - who are all female - are highly prized for their talent, but they're also kept virtual prisoners because of it. They're too valuable to be given free reign, and while they have nominal power, it's pretty illusory in the intensely patriarchal society of Arras.
Though Adelice is good at hiding her skill, she's not good enough. At the mandatory test given to recruit Spinsters, she slips and gives herself away. Later at dinner with her family, Adelice knows she will be picked up - there's no saying "No" when it comes to being a Spinster. Her parents still try and get her away to safety, but they're unsuccessful, and Adelice is taken to undertake her duties after a violent encounter with Arras' police force.
At the training house, Adelice finds herself competing with other Spinsters for the small number of spots available that would actually let her weave the matter and time of Arras. She also sees the devastating effects a wrong stitch can cause and uncovers a few nasty secrets about their society. Naturally, rebellion is brewing, and Adelice finds herself caught in the middle of a very big, very deadly mess.
The weaving aspect of the world is complicated, and it doesn't really start to make sense until much later in the story, when some big secrets are dropped. Though I was a little bewildered most of the time, wondering how Albin could possibly make this world make sense, the payoff is good. Her explanation takes the story from possibly fantasy territory into definite science fiction territory. (I like to call this the McCaffrey Effect.) The SF aspects aren't terribly credible, but I was able to sufficiently suspend my disbelief and enjoy the story.
Unfortunately, the world-building is the only thing that distinguishes Crewel from the scads of other dystopias out there. The rest of the story is fairly pedestrian: horrible government, love interest, kindly mentor, bitchy rival, and a protagonist who is not just special compared to the people of Arras, but special compared to other Spinsters.
And personally, I'm tired of reading about societies that oppress women in my fantasy and SF. Given the current climate (and the past, of course), it's understandable why so many writers would make this a focal point in their stories about a future gone wrong, but I'd prefer to read a dystopia that focuses on something else for a change. (I actually have this complaint about a lot of fantasy in general, and it's one reason I gave up on Song of Ice and Fire after book three. There's only so much I can handle, no matter how well-written and intriguing the story.)
Still, the creativity inherent in the world is enough to keep me interested, and I'm very curious to see where Albin takes the story after a pretty well-done ending. That means I'll be reading the sequel.
Review copy received from the publisher. Crewel will be published October 16.