Hello, Dear Readers! Today I bring you a review of one of the best books I've read in at least a year, if not more, a book that I hope I can persuade ALL of you to rush out and buy or borrow as soon as possible. That book is Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow.
In the world of
Sorrow’s Knot, the dead do not rest easy. Every patch of shadow might be
home to something hungry and nearly invisible, something deadly. The
dead can only be repelled or destroyed with magically knotted cords and
yarns. The women who tie these knots are called binders.
the daughter of Willow, a binder of great power. She’s a proud and
privileged girl who takes it for granted that she will be a binder some
day herself. But when Willow’s power begins to turn inward and tear her
apart, Otter finds herself trapped with a responsibility she’s not ready
for, and a power she no longer wants.
I don't know if anyone else finds this, but when I love something - really, really love it, and wouldn't change a thing about it, and feel that slighty teary, this-has-left-me-forever-changed attachment to it - I find it incredibly hard to write a review. I mean, there's loved and then there's loved, and when you truly fall in love with something it's nigh on impossible to make yourself pick it apart in any kind of a meaningful (or helpful) way.
On the other hand, I'm desperate to get everyone else to read this. And reviews that just spurt squeeing all over the place, while often fun to read, don't usually manage that for me. So I'm going to try to say reasonable, sensible things about Sorrow's Knot. But if you can hear a faint, high-pitched sound echoing in the distance? That is me making helpless noises over this book, and rolling around with it, and hugging it and loving it and calling it George. Because I just can't help it.
So. Do you love Ursula K. Le Guin? Do you love her exquisitely beautiful prose and her almost frightening insight into characters? Then you must read this book. Off you pop. Next!
Do you love Garth Nix's Old Kingdom Trilogy, with it's sinister yet tortured dead that long for peace even as they fight to continue their painful existence in life, and it's incredibly rich, multitextured world-building? Then you must read this book. Run along now. Next!
Do you like my books, with their diverse characters, strong and complex female leads, and tangled familial interactions where love is sometimes more painful than hate? Then you must read this book. Skiddadle.
Perhaps none of these arguments convince you. Let me tell you a little bit more about this story then. It's not at all what the blurb lead me to expect, actually. Sorrow's Knot is set in a world which has clearly been heavily influenced by Native American traditions, and which provices the most subtly and beautifully wrought Matriarchal society I think I've ever come across. I loved the lush,
sensory, down-to-earth descriptions of the wild landscapes, the
multi-textured background of stories and songs and traditions.
The world-building is just...stunning. And it's so, so cleverly done, without ever slipping into a faintly lecturing tone or resorting to info-dumping. I wouldn't even have *cared* if there had been info-dumping, because I was desperate to know more, to glimpse the depths of history behind every day life. But Erin just gently, gently washes your brain with the awareness of how things are, and it feels utterly right and natural and so real.
The POV character is Otter, daughter of the legendary binder Willow, whose bindings on the dead are so strong that, near the beginning of the story, they begin to turn against her, attacking her sanity and driving her to effectively disown Otter, even though it's clear that she desperately loves her. Willow's disintegrating health is a terrible thing for Westmost, the forest village where Otter and Willow live. Willow is the only binder, and has refused to take on an apprentice. Her bindings - literally a ring of woven yarn and rawhide strung between the trees around the village - are the only thing that keep the dead back. And in this world, the dead lurk everywhere. Literally everywhere.
They aren't rotting corpses. They're shadowy, wordless blots of hunger with no real form and no real substance, who can lurk unseen in any tiny patch of darkness. Under a tree root, or in the crevice of a rock, or behind a clump of grass. Their insubstantial bodies long for the warmth of life - if they can get close enough to a human they will surge over into and *into* them, 'undoing the knots' inside their bodies. The knots of bone and tendon and muscle and blood vessels. Even if a person is lucky enough to survive an encounter with the dead, if there is a binder nearby who can draw the dead out of them and send it away, they are often left with terrible internal injuries which subsequently kill them or leave them disabled for life.
And that's just the little dead. There is another kind of dead thing - the Ones with White Hands. Dead that used to be people. Dead that *think*, that hunt... and if one of them touches you and leaves the mark of a white handprint on your skin, you won't be lucky enough to simply die. No. You'll slowly lose your reason and your life, until a new White Hand chews its way out of you. One of these terrible creatures is lurking outside the village - the village where the bindings are beginning to unravel - and the swift-running river that no dead thing can cross, the last line of defence of the village of Westmost, is beginning to ice over...
Otter is a natural binder. An incredibly strong binder. The power inside her is clamouring to get out. But her mother refuses to train her, and in the highly traditional world of the Free Women of the Forest, where everyone must keep the secrets of their 'cord', there's nothing anyone can do to help. Especially since the worse Willow's mental health gets, the more scared everyone in Westmost is of her. Luckily for Otter, there are two other central characters in the story - Cricket and Kestrel, who love each other, but also love Otter, and make her a part of their family when she looses her home. The friendship between these three is so tenderly and realistically drawn that when I think about it my eyes start prickling.
In her quest to protect Cricket and Kestrel, and understand her mother's madness and the reason the dead keep coming back, Otter will show incredible bravery and, eventually wisdom. She will face losses that hollow her out, and find love that will open up the world to her. I'd really enjoy getting into more detail about all my favourite parts of the story, and all the parts that made me cry my eyes out, but this isn't a book where there are throwaway scenes. Everything counts, and every detail is a massive spoiler. So I can't.
This review is all over the place - but I promise you, Sorrow's Knot isn't. Go and get a copy now. Borrow it from a friend or from the library, buy it from a bookshop or from the internet. Just read it. You won't regret it.