Thursday 31 December 2020

#CBR12 Book 102: "The Prince and the Dressmaker" by Jen Wang

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description:
Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family.

Sebastian has just turned sixteen. He wants to be a dutiful son and does his best to please his parents, but he really doesn't feel comfortable with all the match-making they're suddenly doing. He doesn't dare tell anyone that in the evenings, alone in his chambers, he likes dressing up in women's clothing. At his birthday ball, he sees a young, confident noblewoman wearing a very avant-garde dress. He knows what he needs to do.

Frances is a young seamstress, and about to lose her job. Instead of listening to the wishes of the noble lady PAYING for the dress she was making, she asked the young lady who would be wearing the outfit what she would like and designed a frock accordingly. It was unusual and shocking and her employer is furious. Luckily, as she's about to be shown the door, a tall gentleman arrives at the dress shop to enquire who made the dress in question, and discovers it was Frances. He offers her a huge sum of money to leave her job at the dressmaker's (not really a problem, as she was seconds away from being fired) and come work for an anonymous employer. While Frances is nervous, she doesn't really have any choice. 

During their first meeting, Frances' employer wants her to be blind-folded. Frances explains that she can't really fully do her job if she can't see who she's designing for, so her employer appears wearing a thick veil instead. However, some clumsiness and unfortunate timing means the veil is ripped off during the meeting, and her mystery employer is revealed to be none other than Prince Sebastian. He expects her to run off, disgusted, but instead, she is intrigued. She doesn't really care why he wants to wear or why, she just wants a chance to design some stunning and original outfits.

Sebastian starts going out at night, donning a wig and wearing Frances' amazing creations. He takes the name lady Crystallia and very rapidly becomes a fashion icon. Soon, Frances is seeing her creations recreated everywhere, but no one knows that she is the designer of the beautiful outfits and she has no chance of ever becoming famous and making a grand career as long as no one must connect the prince's personal dressmaker with lady Crystallia's creative modiste, lest they figure out lady Crystallia's true identity. 

One benefit of being strapped for time and needing to read things that I could get through quickly at the end of the year is that I've been able to read more of the comics/graphic novels on my TBR list, including this one. I saw some reviewers on Goodreads criticise the fact that it's never addressed as part of the story how Sebastian identifies. Are they trans, non-binary, or in some other way gender-fluid? Does Sebastian not want to get married because of his/their sexual orientation, or is it just that sixteen really is quite young to have a parade of young, accomplished ladies presented to you and be asked to make a choice that will impact the rest of your life. Sebastian's parents may not have started out as a love match (this is never addressed), but they clearly have an affectionate and strong partnership now and seem to be good role models to aspire towards in a relationship sense. As teenagers, many are still questioning and determining their true identities. Asking someone to decide who they're going to spend the rest of their life with at that age is unfair, whether the individual is straight or queer.

The story is lovely, sad in places, but ultimately very heart-warming. The art is absolutely stunning, and I'm glad the illustrations were in colour, so I could fully appreciate Frances' design genius in Crystallia's gorgeous outfits throughout. This is set in a sort of alternate turn of the century (the 19th to the 20th, that is, not 20th to the 21st), where royalty and noble titles are becoming a bit more obsolete, and modern inventions and department stores are beginning to emerge. It also seems to be a world in which royal parents are surprisingly accepting and progressive, given a bit of time to think and reflect.

My main complaint is that I wanted more romance - which is barely present at all! Whine, whine, whine. Still, it's a lovely story with amazing art. I'm glad this was one of the last things I read in this dreaded year.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover gives you a really nice impression of Jen Wang's art style in the book, with the silhouette of Lady Crystallia sort of looming over prince Sebastian and Frances. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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