by Erin Bow
2013 • 368 pages • Arthur A. Levine Books
I can’t say I’m totally sorry to have left bookselling in the rearview mirror when I left Denver, especially now that I am gainfully employed once more. (Yes, it’s publishing, no, it’s not trade publishing, and no, I’m not going to talk about it.) It’s really nice to have a predictable schedule and not have to deal with the small, interesting messes that come with working the children’s section. Or any other section, come to think of it.
But I do miss book recommendations simply falling into my lap at work with absolutely no effort. There was always a new shelf talker, bookmark, excited customer, or swag floating around. (This is why I own a City of Bones tee shirt. It lives at my mother’s house, where I wear it to clean.) Sorrow’s Knot was one such recommendation; I found the bookmark while cleaning out my pockets to do laundry. The downside of all of those recommendations, of course, is that there were so many of them that I never got around to them. But now I am very lucky to have a passive commute, where I can have my own sacred reading hour every (work) day.
So, at long last, I’ve come to Sorrow’s Knot, practically sight unseen after the summer I’ve had. Which is really the best way to come at such a hypnotic, archetypical, and yet thoroughly unique novel.
Most of that uniqueness comes from the simple fact that author Erin Bow draws from Native American culture to construct her fantasy setting, something I have not seen before in mainstream fantasy marketed towards adults or young adults. In her acknowledgments, Bow explicitly points out that she did not base it on any one specific tribe, which is both wise for her (as a non-Native American) and makes me hunger for fantasy novels, especially by Native American authors, that specifically do focus on one tribe. If you’ve got any recommendations on that front, please let me know!
Placing a traditional Hero’s Journey in that setting gives it new life. It helps that Otter isn’t a hero, but a heroine, in a not only female-dominated but matriarchal culture. (There are only two male characters in the novel, both well-rounded love interests who help Otter realize that men are not powerless.) The daughter of Willow, one of the greatest binders of the dead in her people’s history, Otter assumes she’s destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps. But when her mother begins acting erratically and actually turns the corpse of her mentor into one of the most dreaded dead—a White Hand, who can infect with a touch—Otter is forced to rethink not only her life, but life and death itself. But while Sorrow’s Knot hits every point in the archetypical journey, it does so in an organic, sprawling way.
And therein lies the hypnotic pulse of Sorrow’s Knot: how a group of three lives—that of Otter and her friends Kestrel and Cricket—becomes tied up in these grand stories simply because of human nature. Otter loves her mother but is terrified of the thing she’s becoming. Kestrel, the most law-abiding of the bunch, will do anything for both Cricket and Otter. And Cricket breaks one of their most sacred laws because he’s a storyteller born, who knows what stories she needs if their people are to be saved from the dead. It is not a ponderous novel, but it’s a novel with its emotions at the surface, focusing on Otter’s coming of age and the myriad other stories that feed into that.
That hypnotic pulse of life is supplemented by both Bow’s writing style and how she stylizes Otter’s world. Bow pushes and pulls us away from her characters, drawing us in with their precisely detailed humanity and distancing us by invoking turns of phrases more commonly associated with oral tellings of great deeds. Bow’s prose is only lightly accented, with a lot of its flourish reserved for the majesty of its female characters or for its exploration of fearing death in all its incarnations, but that does not that it’s plain. Every part of this novel speaks with a fascinating, compelling voice, in a way that I find rare for books aimed at all audiences, not just young adults. Sorrow’s Knot is not available as an audiobook, but I can think of few books more suited to that peculiar format.
I rented this book from the public library.