CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 5. . . .October 4, 2013
In Sorrow's Knot, Erin Bow has created the world of Westmost, the last pinch on the edge of the earth. The story centres around Otter and her friends, Kestrel and Cricket. Cricket dreams of becoming a storyteller while Kestrel has it in her bloodline to become a ranger, one of the brave women who wander through the dangers of the forest to gather and hunt for the pinch. Otter has inherited her mother's power to bind the dead with ritual knots to prevent them from feeding upon the living.
Westmost is inhabited by the Shadowed People, a group of free women organized according to cords. There is Newt, a bonesetter whose cord is healer. There is Flea of the storytelling cord who keeps the history of the pinch. Then there is Thistle, the tough master of the ranger cord. Finally, there are Tamarack and Willow, the first and second binders of Westmost. Binders are women of status, revered for their power to repel and unmake the dead.
The author lays the foundations of the theme and plot by introducing how the main characters are subverting the norms and traditions of their people. The crux of the story lies in the knot, a tie that binds. Binders use knots to protect and join things together. They lead the newly dead to the scaffolds, binding their corpses high in trees for safety and ensuring that they leave the world of the living, for in Westmost, some dead come back. There are slips, creatures who are overcome with hunger. Then there are gasts, cunning and ever watching. But the most terrifying and cruel are those which were once humans, the White Hands. A person touched by a White Hand has nine days to live in madness before they become a White Hand themselves.
Yet Otter's mother Willow, hailed as the greatest binder of her age, is behaving strangely. Her power is turning backwards: she is unbinding. When Tamarack dies, Willow is overcome with sorrow and fear and refuses to let her go. And so at her funeral she binds her, and against her people's customs she calls her back to the world of the living. This act sets in motion a series of events that places Westmost in danger and obligates Otter and her friends to find out the mystery of the White Hand and how to unmake it.
Erin Bow was previously reviewed in CM for Plain Kate, a book for which she won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award in 2011. Sorrow's Knot is a high fantasy novel whose language demonstrates Bow's deft hand as a storyteller. The world she has created in Westmost with its people, customs and lore are fully realized and richly described. Her words are carefully crafted, flowing smoothly with grace and elegance as she weaves a cyclical tale about death, losing one's dreams and making room for new ways of thinking. Aside from invoking delicious terror, what was particularly enjoyable about the novel was the author's use of frame stories. These stories provided a beautiful symmetry between the two halves of the novel, skillfully compressing its larger themes and recapitulating Otter's development as a woman of power.
Sorrow's Knot is highly recommended for young adult readers of fantasy novels.
Jenice Batiforra was previously a Branch Head Librarian at the Winnipeg Public Library in Winnipeg, MB.
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