Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow (Scholastic 2013), is one of the best books I've read this year. While I was reading it I was lost to the world in that best of bookish ways, and indeed during the last half of the book there was really no other world than that of the story, and I was no longer reading, but simply being there, and how can one say better than that?
Three children are growing up in safety at the westernmost edge of the world, in the lodges of the free women of the forest--Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket, two girls and a boy, sharing their last summer of sunlight before adulthood. Three children who know that safety can be found only behind the bound knots of the cords that keep the restless dead outside their village.
Kestrel will be a Ranger, one of the women who risk the dangers of the dead and travel beyond the bindings. Cricket will be a storyteller, and already he has the teller's gift of tying words. Otter, child of the binder's apprentice, already has the power of that magic strong within her, wanting only her mother's teaching before she, too, can tie the knots that bind the dead.
But the dead are bound to the living, tied too tight, and horror comes. And the sunlight summer ends, bringing a dark winter. And Otter must listen to the stories, and to her heart, and to the words her mother speaks as she falls into madness, or else there will be no place for the living at the edge of the western world.
Having gotten the somewhat self-consciously written synopsis out of the way, here's what the book really is about, and why I liked it so very much:
--There are three kids who love each other, who live in a world really truly at the edge of horror. Two love each other romantically, and the third loves both as dear friends. Their love, and respect, and need for each other makes a triangle of the best possible sort--they are stronger together than they are apart, and they make each other laugh. It made me happy to be with them.
--There is a really creepy magic that feels convincing and original without being gimmicky. It is so easy to see how things went wrong with the binding (and the reader realizes it long before the characters, which is perhaps the only weakness of the plot).
--The power of story is at the heart of the book. This is one I'd enthusiastically recommend to fans of Patricia McKillip--the hidden things in the stories become more and more real in a complicated dance with the daylight world.
--The world turns out to be larger, with more stories in it, than the three kids realize. The story moves from the claustrophobically bound tightness of the community at the beginning to the wide world outside, which gives plot and character room to expand in interesting ways.
--It is really sad, but not so sad as to break my heart.
--There's lots of opportunity for fun with metaphor.
--And finally, there is fantasy world building that takes its inspiration from Native North America, but without being on a mission to create a fantasy version of Native American tribes. In the same way as so many fantasies borrow from European history and culture, Erin Bow brings details of place and how people lived from North America, and pulls it off to make a world that isn't real, but which convinces. Not since Ursula Le Guin's books (like Always Coming Home) have I read a North American inspired fantasy that I truly could accept (because I am an archaeologist, working with the Tribes of New England, and think a lot about place and people and how power plays out in representations of both, I am easily bothered).
One reason why it worked is that Bow manages to avoid the clichés that signpost "Indians" in fiction. The technological details are there--the projectile points made of stone, the travois of the nomadic people who visit the village, the drums, the clothing--but Bow uses these to craft a world that actually isn't supposed to be an accurate representation--it is a fantasy, in which the reader is allowed to realize and reshape her understanding of who these people are as she goes along. It is not until page 175 that skin color is mentioned, and I thought it was so nicely done--it is a sad and tense moment, and under the winter pine trees Otter sees "long, fallen, needles the color of a dead woman's skin," and it stopped me in my tracks because my default is cold, white dead skin, and I thought of the dark golden brown of pine needles, and Otter, Cricket, and Kestrel grew a few shades darker in my mind.
But really, what it all comes down to was that it was a book whose writing was so good that I lived it.
Of course, not every book is for everybody. I loved it, and Brandy loved it, and Maureen loved it, and Kirkus gave it a star, but if you are impatient with subtle, story-filled buildup, and want people to move briskly and decisively to do what clearly needs to be done, and want things explained rather than felt, you might not be happy with it.
And on top of that, the arch of the character's journey is from childhood into their teenage years--it is, thematically, more middle grade than Young Adult. They are realizing who they might be, journeying away from childhood, rather than moving into true adulthood. And so though two of them pair up romantically in a profound relationship, and there is the beginning of love toward the end, it read "young" to me. So--if you are expecting angst-filled introspection and sex, you might be let down.
Here's the first reader who comes to my mind--the 12 year old girl (who isn't put off by nightmares) who wants a book that will make her cry her eyes out because she relates so closely to the characters and what they are going through. And she will love it, and read it again, and move through its metaphors toward growing up, even if she doesn't want to.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.