REVIEW: Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow
Dear Ms. Bow,
It’s not often that we stumble across North American-based fantasy, let alone North American-based fantasy that draws upon indigenous cultures. I admit this quality was what drew me to your novel. Like I’ve said in the past, when it comes to certain things, I’m easy.
Sorrow’s Knot is set in a world where the living and the dead exist side by side. Ghosts are ever-present and a constant threat to the living. But humans are ingenious and there are means to keep them at bay.
Otter is the daughter of a binder — women with the ability to use knot and cord magic to create wards to repel the dead. Like her mother, she is powerful. It’s a given that she will succeed her mother and become the binder of her generation. But when the village’s aging binder dies, the unthinkable happens. Otter’s mother succeeds the position but rejects her daughter. This is horrifying to everyone. Not just because she dismissed her daughter’s considerable power but because no binder exists without a second. In a world where ghosts spread like a disease, it’s risky to do this and circumstances soon show why: Otter’s mother is going mad.
Her only purpose in life wrest from her, Otter is left adrift. But when her mother’s actions lead to devastating repercussions for the village, she has no choice but to take up the legacy denied to her. Unfortunately, it involves unraveling a hidden mystery that has the potential to remake their world.
Like I said, I picked this book up because of the cultural basis. Imagine my delight when I realized the society in which Otter lived was matriarchal too! How great. When I was younger, I read quite a few SFF novels featuring matriarchal societies but I feel they’ve decreased in number these days. (And when they do appear, they’re not that interesting and to be blunt, are often kind of offensive. Wise Man’s Fear, I’m looking at you with your white tai chi masters who need to be lectured by the male protagonist about where babies come from.)
Because the majority of the book’s cast is female, I loved seeing the different relationships between women play out. The theme of mothers and daughters plays out constantly over the novel. Not just between Otter and her mother, but between her mother and her mother. Otter and her mother are both binders, but Otter’s grandmother is not. As you’d expect, that affects the family dynamics, and why Otter’s mother later does what she does with the aging binder who became her surrogate mother. The secret that Otter must unravel hinges on the relationship between Mad Spider, the greatest binder who ever lived, and her mother. So much fiction, especially fantasy fiction, depends the role of the father so it’s nice to see that focus shift to the mother. (And not because she’s dead.)
I also adored the relationship between Otter and Kestrel. Female friends who love and support each other without any jealousy or resentment! The fact that their other childhood friend, Cricket, would become Kestrel’s love interest didn’t faze Otter in the slightest. In fact, the only thing she found odd was that Kestrel and Cricket wanted to get married in the first place, which is not a thing done in their culture. (To put it into perspective, Otter doesn’t know who her father was and doesn’t care. It’s not a thing women in their culture are curious about.) When Kestrel and Cricket do get married, it was nice to see that things didn’t get weird between the three of them or that Otter became a third wheel. It was just so refreshing.
The romance subplots were not major points of the novel and were subtle. First we see the evolution of Kestrel and Cricket’s relationship through Otter’s eyes. Then we see Otter fall in love when she meets Orca on her journey west with Kestrel.
I can’t talk about much about Orca without revealing some major plot spoilers, but I liked that he is Cricket’s counterpart from a different tribe. He’s a storyteller like Cricket but because he’s an outsider, he can help Otter see the spots she missed as they unravel the mystery. And while he may have his own tragic past (don’t the male love interests always do?), it never overshadows or takes the place of the girls’ mission. In some ways, I wonder if the introduction of Orca’s past was a way to set-up a potential sequel but perhaps not.
One thing I haven’t mentioned were the ghosts and I probably should have. They’re creepy. I cannot emphasize that enough. The ghosts are creepy. Especially the most dangerous of the ghosts, the White Hands. The fact that a touch from a White Hand will turn a person into a White Hand herself is pretty scary.
I don’t know as much about Native American folklore as I should so I don’t know how much of the knot and cord magic is drawn from it. Regardless, I loved it because it was so different from what we usually see in traditional fantasy. It’s talent-based but there’s also skill and dexterity involved. The idea of these giant knotted webs that not only keep ghosts out but can also ensnare people was awesome but also terrifying. (We see what happens when someone walks into one of these wards.) Fitting, I suppose, for a culture plagued by the dead and whose magic system exists solely to combat the dead.
Despite all the things I loved about the book, there were a couple flaws. I found the pacing uneven. While the majority of the book unfolded at a good clip, the last quarter seemed out of sync with the rest. Everything happened quickly, which threw me out of the book.
I also would have liked to see more interactions between Otter and Orca. While I loved their relationship, I’m not convinced their falling in love so fast was that believable. I’m aware this may be a ridiculous complaint, given the prevalent of instalove in YA, but while I think Otter and Orca’s romance was better portrayed than most instalove examples, it doesn’t quite break free of them.
Overall, though, I enjoyed Sorrow’s Knot. This is exactly the kind of book I want when I say I’m looking more multicultural fantasy. Sadly, it does make me aware there’s not as much of it out there as I’d like. But on the other hand, it introduced me to an author I definitely plan on following. B+