Review: Sorrow’s Knot, by Erin Bow (2014)

Sorrow's Knot coverI pounced on this immediately because I adored Plain Kate, the author’s first. Sorrow’s Knot deals with similar images and themes: unquiet dead, tangled magic, family mysteries, deep and unforgivable mistakes born of human rigidity. Bow’s prose is lyrical and haunting, and she did the research to set both stories in magical worlds based loosely on real cultures. Plain Kate is set in folktale Russia; Sorrow’s Knot‘s people are a sort of vaguely Pacific Northwestern Native tribe. (More on that shortly.) Both are largely bloodless horror novels with a low body count that still manage to be creepy as hell, Sorrow’s Knot even more so than Plain Kate.

What Knot is missing is the humor that Taggle, Plain Kate’s pet cat, added to that book. When your atmosphere is full of horrifying spirits and creepy magicians and there’s no guarantee that characters you love won’t die, you need a little levity once in a while. I never felt like I connected with the characters in Knot as well as I did those in Kate, and I think in part it’s because I never shared their good times as well as their sorrows.

A word about the setting: Native appropriation is unfortunately common in magical fiction, so I had some trepidation about that clearly Native North American girl on the cover of a novel by an (as far as I know) non-Native author. Bow is very clear that neither Westmost nor Orca’s people are meant to be based on real tribes, but I’m not sure that’s better since Generic Mystical Native-ness was exactly the thing I was worried about? That said, the most salient feature of Westmost’s culture — the binding of the dead — is based on no stereotypes at all and is the complete opposite of generic. The rest (houses, food, hunting techniques) appear to be based on research and plausibly authentic to the pre-colonial Pacific Northwest, from what little I know about those cultures. Debbie Reese hasn’t written anything about this book (yet?), so I am without Native guidance. I’m going to go with yay for non-European fantasy setting, yay for character of color on the cover, wish said cover had been a little less literal.

Read-alikes: I couldn’t stop thinking about Above, by Leah Bobet — urban setting, but very similar feel and mystery. That one’s solidly YA, but Sorrow’s Knot could easily reach to middle school if you don’t mind a couple of mildly dirty jokes about “hoop and lance games.” The rest of my suggestions are for good readers in 6th/7th grade and up:

Kelly Lassiter made the connection to Vessel, by Sarah Beth Durst, because it’s also “a story of a young woman who learns something has gone wrong in her people’s spiritual system,” and I agree they’d probably appeal to similar readers — though Vessel‘s writing style is more straightforward and the romance is more front-and-center. Also, anything by Frances Hardinge or Aaron Starmer’s Riverman for uniqueness and complex, creepy mystery. (Sorrow’s Knot is notably shorter than both Vessel and Hardinge’s oeuvre, which are scary-long for a lot of readers.)

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