Author: Erin Bow
Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication Date: October 2013
Hardcover: 352 Pages
From the acclaimed author of PLAIN KATE, a new novel about what lurks in the shadows, and how to put it to rest…
In the world of SORROW’S KNOT, the dead do not rest easy. Every patch of shadow might be home to something hungry, something deadly. Most of the people of this world live on the sunlit, treeless prairies. But a few carve out an uneasy living in the forest towns, keeping the dead at bay with wards made from magically knotted cords. The women who tie these knots are called binders. And Otter’s mother, Willow, is one of the greatest binders her people have ever known.
But Willow does not wish for her daughter to lead the lonely, heavy life of a binder, so she chooses another as her apprentice. Otter is devastated by this choice, and what’s more, it leaves her untrained when the village falls under attack. In a moment of desperation, Otter casts her first ward, and the results are disastrous. But now Otter may be her people’s only hope against the shadows that threaten them. Will the challenge be too great for her? Or will she find a way to put the dead to rest once and for all?
Stand alone or series: Standalone novel (but could potentially be the first in a series)
How did we get this book: ARC from the Publisher (via BEA)
Format (e- or p-): Print
Why did we read this book: Both of us read and thoroughly enjoyed Plain Kate, Erin Bow’s first novel, and were on tenterhooks for this second book. When were invited to participate in the blog tour for Sorrow’s Knot, we were thrilled.
In the depths of the forest at the edge of the world, the Shadowed People make their home. Here, the darkness hides death itself – monsters of shade whose touch can kill the living. The slip are formless creatures of darkness, driven by hunger but possessing no other will of their own. The gast are stronger and more cunning, with definite form; they are rarer than the slip, but far more deadly. The most fearful of all the monsters in the sunless woods, more terrible than slips and gasts, are the Ones with the White Hands. The touch of a White Hand means not only death for the bearer, but madness and unimaginable pain – a touch that transforms, turning those touched by a White Hand into a White Hand themselves.
Otter is one of these brave Shadowed People of Westmost, who make their home in the dark forest, who repel death and keep the monsters at bay with knots of yarn and magic. Otter is the only child of Willow, the greatest binder that her kind have ever seen since Mad Spider – she who built the first great ward, and defeated the first White Hands. Like her mother, Otter has a gift for knots and binds and has always dreamed of following in Willow’s footsteps, to become a great binder for Westmost. But all of that changes when the town’s old binder Tamarack, she who taught Willow all she knew, dies. Driven mad by grief – or by some other nefarious force – Willow binds her teacher in the traditional way, high in burial trees outside the village’s wards. She speaks the traditional words and makes the traditional knots of death… but instead of wishing Tamarack’s soul free, Willow calls it back, dooming the village to see Tamarack return as a vengeful White Hand.
Willow’s act of madness leads to great heartache for the Shadowed People, and for her daughter Otter. Instead of becoming a binder and following in her mother’s footsteps, Otter is cast aside without cord or profession, without hope to use her steadily growing power. And, when the White Hand comes at last for the people of Westmost, death follows in its wake – and young, untested, untrained Otter is the village’s only hope for survival.
The second book from Erin Bow, Sorrow’s Knot lives up to its haunting title and early praise. This is a beautiful, sorrowful book; it is an elegiac fable about death and tradition in the darkest of times. I fell in love with Bow’s writing in Plain Kate, and I’m happy to say that the same, lush and evocative prose is present in Sorrow’s Knot – all the more poignant, I think, in this second book because of its focus on stories and storytelling, of memory and loss. But more than the writing (which has its drawbacks, by the way – I’ll get into that in a bit), it’s truly the imaginative scope of this novel that makes the book so memorable.
The world of Sorrow’s Knot is fascinating, original, and so beautifully-wrought. I love the concept of binding and binders, of magic contained in knots, and patterns that have the ability to vanquish darkness, creating wards that work on both the living and the dead. Also, very importantly, the world is thankfully neither appropriative nor exploitative (very important, as Otter’s village and world is one clearly based on Native American Indians and Aboriginal people). Though rooted in these cultures, Sorrow’s Knot is firmly a work of dark fantasy, spinning its own unique traditions and people to great effect. The pinch (village) of Westmost and the society of the Shadowed People, for example, is strictly matriarchal. Men have no magic in these woods-shrouded environs, and have only smaller roles to play in Otter’s village (as such, young men born to the pinch usually leave with the annual traveling tribes that make their way from the sunny plains to the darkened woods). In addition to its matriarchal setup, Sorrow’s Knot also creates a society in which secrets are passed down from profession to profession without ever revealing them to others in the village. Binders take on a single apprentice, and pass the great mysteries of power and secrets from teacher to student over the generations. This is important – the isolated, insular culture of secrets and lack of collaboration – and plays a vital role in the development of the story.
Of course, far more interesting than these societal dynamics are the horrific elements of the story – because truly, Sorrow’s Knot is a dark fantastical horror novel at its core. The concept of dead shadows stalking the living is incredibly frightening, and the Ones with White Hands are flat-out terrifying. This book actually reminds me very much of a zombie story (it has touches of Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth in style, substance, and sorrow) – Erin Bow mentions The Walking Dead in her guest post today, and that is a very apt comparison. Like a world overrun by the flesh-eating undead, the world outside the Shadowed Peoples’ wards are full of death and horror, and even those wards can fail. In other words, there is no safe quarter – and this, to me, is terrifying.
Now, while so much of the book is so masterfully done, there are also certain drawbacks that prevent Sorrow’s Knot from being a truly perfect read. As I’ve mentioned before, Erin Bow’s writing is beautiful and evocative, and I appreciate the haunting, atmospheric quality the writing itself lends to the story very much. That said, while gorgeous, the prose also tends towards the strained and repetitive, at times feeling a little forced (certain metaphors and stylistic choices were lost on me especially at the book’s end). And, especially by the end of the book, it seems style is given credence over actual explanation. The story of Mad Spider is repeated no less than four times (in my ARC, I should note), as are certain phrases without ever actually resolving anything (“there is something wrong with the knots” and “the rope is rotting” immediately come to mind). While the repetition is initially very effective, it becomes something like a trick in a horror movie – a creaking door or sharp surprise that elicits a shock, but repeated one too many times to have true emotional resonance.
Similarly, the book’s dramatic revelation and conclusion – roughly the last 1/4 of the story – is incredibly rushed and nebulous. I’ve reread the ending chapters at least 3 times now and I’m not entirely sure I get what happened. Simply put: it’s confusing. Perhaps this is a personal failing (me being dense/not smart enough to follow along), but I am not sure how – or, more importantly, why – everything is resolved. There are also a number of early loose ends that I’m not convinced are resolved effectively in the book; Willow’s madness and intense power before being touched, the ultimate explanation behind the White Hands and their creation/traditions of the Shadow People, how Orca got to the island in the first place (and why he’s there), for example.
Speaking of Orca, let’s talk characters for a second. I love the main character, Otter, and her heartbreaking (if somewhat traditional) hero’s journey, growing into her power and tearing down the shroud of secrets and unwitting lies that has been woven over the eyes of her people for generations. More than just Otter, I love the trio of friendship that is the main focus for the majority of the novel. Otter and her best friends Kestrel and Cricket have been inseparable ever since they were children: Kestrel is collected and practical, the fearless and pragmatic one of the group; Cricket, Kestrel’s beloved other half, is male and has no magic of his own, but is a true, fearless friend and has great power in his stories. Together, the three grow from sunflower children to young adults; together they face down the terror of death and grow strong in each others’ acceptance and love.
Where things get a little shaky (for me personally), is the last-minute addition of a mysterious stranger and love interest in the book’s final act. Otter and her friends are so strong, so wonderful together, that the convenient addition of another male visitor – one who immediately falls in love with Otter, and whose love Otter completely reciprocates after a few short days – feels inauthentic and pandering. It’s also shockingly convenient , as Orca is a storyteller from another clan, and through Orca and Otter’s shared love, Otter is *finally* able to solve the mystery of the knots (honestly, couldn’t she have come to this conclusion on her own? WHY must there always be a love interest that spurs these revelations on?). But… your mileage may vary. I know many will probably enjoy the love story, late as it appears in the book – it simply isn’t to my personal taste.
All criticisms said, I thoroughly enjoyed Sorrow’s Knot and absolutely recommend it – especially at this precise instant, leading up to Halloween. Erin Bow is an author of wonderful skill, and I cannot wait to read what she writes next.
“The world was bigger than she’d thought.”
The world was bigger than she’d thought.
If there is one thing that strikes me the most about Sorrow’s Knot it is how it takes a simple idea and does wonders with it. Written with gorgeous prose that emulates old fashioned tales (it starts: “The girl who remade the world was born in winter”), Sorrow’s Knot is a book that spoke to me deeply as a reader. I found in it a lot to love.
It is a tale of unspeakable horror, a tale of friendship ties, a tale of strong girls, a tale where tradition meets transformation, a tale of death and a tale of love. It is also a tale of grief so great it has changed the world, or at least the world that the characters know.
It tells a timeless story: Sorrow’s Knot is a heroine’s journey as Otter learns the extent of her power and the extent of the world around her. It is also a tale of identity: Otter always thought she’d be a binder of the death, always assumed that she had a rightful place amongst the women of power in her village. When that is taken from her what is left? In a world where what you do is also who you are – a binder, storyteller, a ranger – what and who else can she be?
The world was bigger than she’d thought.
To start with, Otter’s world is a small one of close relationships, limited space, even more restricted traditions and where history is interwoven with stories. It’s funny because in a way storytelling bounds more than the knots that form the centre of this society. It is also storytelling and especially the forbidden, secret stories, that become instruments of freedom. But only if those stories are shared.
Because the powerful, free women of the forest are not as free as they think themselves to be. Not when they are restricted by unshakable tradition, not when they do not question, not when ritual supersedes common sense. It is an interesting conundrum and one I am particularly fond of reading because it takes a focused, small place like Otter’s village and examines its society with a closer look. Their traditional ways make up for who they are as a people but their acceptance of “this is how things have always been” is taken at face value. It takes a few generations to get to a point where “this is how things have always been” becomes “maybe they don’t have to be”. So part of the journey here is to have the courage to ask why are things the way they are and it’s the central trio in the story – the friends Otter, Kestrel and Cricket’s – that make the jump. As it is so often in stories, it is unschooled and untried youth that question and bring about change. Because they have a close bond, a trusted bond and even if they are each from a different cord (profession), they talk to each other and share the secrets they shouldn’t and sometimes this brings about awful consequences. One of those reduced me to a blubbering mess of tears and grief. The central relationship between the three best friends Otter, Cricket and Kestrel is incredibly poignant and I loved Otter and Kestrel’s powerful bond so much – two girls who are well-written complex female characters.
So: there is something wrong with the knots. There is something wrong with the knots. At first an uneasy feeling, a passing worry. But it grows: because according to tradition and to the stories there shouldn’t be anything wrong with the knots. The knots are the instrument of their safety, it is unthinkable that they should be wrong. But that uneasy feeling permeates the novel, and is repeated over and over again to great effect (at least to me) because in repetition lies clarity. In repetition lies change – Otter repeats to herself that there is something wrong with the knots in order to believe it.
So. A wonderful, wonderful book whose perfection is marred solely by its too rushed conclusion. I don’t necessarily think that there are loose ends because the narrative has a certain quality of legend and fable to it and things are kind of vague. It suited me and I was happy with the explanations the way they were presented. I was less happy with the fact that it all seemed to happen so fast almost in discord with the rest of the novel which up until then had a more leisured feel to it.
With regards to Orca, the book could still have worked perfectly without this added component, with the focus on the relationship between the two girls remaining till the end. But from a narrative perspective I completely understand why he was introduced at all: because the world was bigger than Otter had thought. The relationship that develops between him and Otter is sudden and instantaneous but not completely implausible to me given the circumstances. I liked how things ended between them and I liked the type of romance that developed. It is just my type of romantic relationship: respectful, fun, funny and sweet.
Sorrow’s Knot has the same type of evocative poignancy that the author’s Plain Kate had but worked so much better for me. It also reminded me a lot of two of my favourite books, Chime and The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, and this is a comparison I do not make lightly.
The world was bigger than she’d thought.
And so it was.
So. Between curtain and curtain, between firelight and fear, between childhood and womanhood, otter cast her first ward.
She did not know how, not properly. She had no belt, no status. She had learned things from Kestrel, and from Fawn, both in haste, both in secret. She knew nothing well.
But though she didn’t have knowledge, she had power.
Power had grown inside her that year, the year in which she should have become a woman. She had not taken a belt, but it had grown all the same. It had grown restless. Like a stomach with no food, it might have made her sour, made her frightened. It hadn’t – she’d fought that. But it had grown, and it was ready now. It leapt into her hands, into her heart.
The tunnel was low, and the peeling logs had plenty of rough bits where a twine could be attached. She drew the cords through her hands and felt as if she were drawing them from inside her own body, as spiders do. She made the line cross itself one, two three times: the cradle. She added new strands to bend and transform it, to hold the power of the knots suspended like a wall in the air.
A ward. By fear and by pride, by instinct, in near darkness, between the children of Westmost and the outer door, Otter cast a first ward.
And her power carved its channel into her, straight and deep, from the heart to the hand, like a streambed. Like a scar.
Ana: 8 – Excellent, leaning toward 9 and a Notable Read of 2013 (at the very least)
Thea: 7 – Very Good
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