Title: Sorrow’s Knot
Author: Erin Bow
Length: 342 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
Sorrow’s Knot is quasi-high fantasy aimed at a slightly younger set, and written in a style that sounds more like an oral story than a novel. What makes it really unique, though, is that the world in which it takes place is based not on medieval Europe, but pre-Columbian North America. In combination with the very oral tone, this gave the novel a very unique, fresh feel. While some of the details were simplistic and perhaps the world-building was underdeveloped, the subject matter was deep and emotional.
Otter inhabits a small matriarchal village surrounded by slightly foreboding woodlands. Sometimes, people from the east come to socialize, trade, and, well, repopulate, but for the most part the community is isolated and made up almost entirely of women and children. These women learn from a young age to wield magic through making different patterns in yarn. Some become rangers that guard the village, some healers, and so on. These trades are known as “cords.” Otter’s mother Willow is a powerful binder, and she expects to follow in her footsteps.
Now that I’m trying to describe it, I realize that a binder’s role is never clearly explained. They use their knots to repel spirits of the dead, for the most part, but that isn’t all they do. That could have been developed more thoroughly, I’m sure.
The dead are a constant threat to Otter and her friends. Most of these spirits are described as shadow-like creatures, but a select few are terrifying White Hands. One touch from such a creature is enough to doom a person to go mad and themselves become one. The dead are most threatening at night, and therefore no one leaves the confines of he village after dark.
Despite its simplicity and the unanswered questions it left me with, the world-building nonetheless compelling as a whole. Sorrow’s Knot also managed to combine a moving coming-of-age story with an actual story. In places, it seemed that there was a bit too much, in fact. Some things felt rushed, as if Ms. Bow was eager to get to the next scene, though in other places it was wont to drag.
The characters also left something to be desired. Most felt two-dimensional and, like some of the world-building, underdeveloped. The only really strong one was Otter’s childhood friend Cricket, the village storyteller and one of the very few boys who did not leave when he came of age. The only other named male character, Orca, had potential, but too often I got the impression that I was just reading about a slight variation of Cricket.
Other than the questions it left me with, that was my biggest problem with the book. Like When Autumn Leaves and the mediocre Spellcaster, men are cut off entirely from the magical world. They have no power whatsoever, and perhaps that’s the reason most boys leave the village at a young age. (It’s unclear whether adult men are flat-out unwelcome as permanent residents or if they leave voluntarily.) This wouldn’t bother me so much if it didn’t seem to be a trend–and one that baffles me. There is nothing about maleness that precludes magical ability, unless these authors know something I don’t. The way they’re described as being “helpless” and unable to “possibly defend [themselves]” was also…well, a bit over-the-top, I thought. Too cut-and-dry, too black-and-white in a novel that was anything but.
I feel like going into further detail would be difficult without revealing spoilers, so suffice to say that while I enjoyed the book and kept reading, as it moved towards its climax it began to raise yet more questions that had muddy, unclear answers at best. The last ten to twelve chapters affected me on an emotional level but often left me scratching my head as well.
As a whole, Sorrow’s Knot is a unique and interesting novel. It’s a quick read and is gripping at times. It has truly beautiful passages and truly moving ones, but it can also be a bit confusing and, plot holes aside, would’ve been a bit better-served by stronger characters.