Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow
Published: 2013, Arthur A. Levine Books
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Publisher via NetgalleyGoodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble
Deciding to die is one thing. Walking to your death with your eyes open is another.
Otter’s life has been one full of certainties. She is daughter to the most powerful binder in recent history and already possesses intrinsic raw talent. When she and the other children leave their childhoods behind, no one in their society doubts that Otter will become an apprentice to her mother Willow. And in the forested town of Westmost, the job of the binder is absolutely integral. Without a binder tying knots to both free the souls of their dead and keep back the spirits found in the shadows, their small village would quickly be overrun. Otter’s accepted her duty to her people.
But the death of Tamarack, the old binder, and her mother’s ensuing grief causes everything to spiral out of control. Her mother does not set Tamarack’s body free, instead consigning it to become a dreaded White Hand spirit. Willow also reveals that she no longer has control over the knots she makes, and that they’re more likely to unravel than to tightly bind. And, worst of all, she chooses another apprentice over Otter. Otter, whose life was so certain, so set, no longer knows what to do, or even who she is.
Sorrow’s Knot reads like a fable, rich in history and lore. The prose is beautiful but sparse, each and every word advancing both the plot and the reader’s understanding of Otter’s world. Much as Otter learns to take control of every knot she makes, so does Erin Bow deftly manipulate her words.
Much like a fable, Sorrow’s Knot is also full of relatively simple concepts waiting for their greater meanings to be teased out. Otter’s seeming loss of identity. The significance of the problems found within the knots. The origins of the White Hands. The story of Mad Spider, the greatest binder ever to have lived. The constant focus on retelling the stories of the past gives the story a circular motion, but is absolutely integral to its overall mood and understanding.
A gast’s attack of Otter’s male friend Cricket early on in the story serves to show not only the looming darkness of their world, but also how unfit this life is for anyone without the power to tie knots. Most boys leave the town upon maturation for the safer sunlit areas, for within Otter’s village it is the women who hold all the power to tie the knots that protect their people from the spirits. The binders may be the ones that securely bind together the bodies of the dead and hang their bodies from trees to prevent their spirits from coming back for the living, but the rangers, storytellers, and medics all create their own special knots to protect the village. Even in times of quiet, the dead are always waiting, mostly kept at bay by the knotted fence surrounding the village. There is a lot of darkness in Otter’s life, both literally and figuratively.
Location is of utmost importance to the story of Sorrow’s Knot. Otter’s life, and the lives of the villagers, are defined by the area they inhabit. While the majority of people near open, sunlit areas, hidden away from all that hides within the shadows, Otter’s people - appropriately called the Shadowed People - choose to live near the darkness. Their shadowed village is under constant threat from the weak but ever-hungry slips, the cunning gasts, and the White Hands. Rarest and most powerful of the three types of spirits, a touch from a White Hand is a death sentence, and those who live long enough for the White Hands to break free from their bodies become White Hands themselves, or so the stories say.
In many ways, Sorrow’s Knot tells the traditional story of a hero’s journey. After more grief and sorrow than Otter can bear, she travels away from their village into the subtle menace of the forest. Her search for identity and meaning is closely tied with the land she and her friend Kestrel explore. And it is in the land, in the places she discovers, that Otter is able to find answers to her questions.
As much as I loved the concept behind this story, I felt as though the story itself did not end on the strongest note. In the last quarter of the book, Bow introduces a new character (a storyteller like her friend Cricket) so that she (a binder) and her friend Kestrel (a ranger) once again form a group of three with three different ways to form knots against the dead. Essentially from this point forward, I found I was not quite sure what Bow intended for her story to do. I did not fully grasp the meaning of any of the final revelations, nor did I understand how the characters arrived at their conclusions. I suppose that the ending was fitting, but it was ultimately not as satisfying for me as I hoped it would be.
Still, though, I found much to appreciate in Bow’s latest novel. Thank goodness for these impressively rendered fantasy standalones. They seem to be a dying breed, which makes me want to gather them up and hold onto them all the more tightly. A few issues with the conclusion aside, Sorrow’s Knot is a complex, nuanced tale that has ensured I will read more of Erin Bow’s books in the future.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Disclaimers: I received this review copy from the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion. The quote is from an advanced copy of the novel and is subject to change in the final edition.