Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow

Release Date: October 29, 2013
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books 
Pages: 368
Received: ARC from publisher, via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars


From Goodreads:

From the acclaimed author of PLAIN KATE, a new novel about what lurks in the shadows, and how to put it to rest...

In the world of SORROW'S KNOT, the dead do not rest easy. Every patch of shadow might be home to something hungry, something deadly. Most of the people of this world live on the sunlit, treeless prairies. But a few carve out an uneasy living in the forest towns, keeping the dead at bay with wards made from magically knotted cords. The women who tie these knots are called binders. And Otter's mother, Willow, is one of the greatest binders her people have ever known.

But Willow does not wish for her daughter to lead the lonely, heavy life of a binder, so she chooses another as her apprentice. Otter is devastated by this choice, and what's more, it leaves her untrained when the village falls under attack. In a moment of desperation, Otter casts her first ward, and the results are disastrous. But now Otter may be her people's only hope against the shadows that threaten them. Will the challenge be too great for her? Or will she find a way to put the dead to rest once and for all?


I adored Plain Kate, mostly because Erin Bow created a rich world with depth, culture, history, and texture, filled it with people (and one very important animal) who completely claimed my love, and then she spent the entire book ripping my heart out with the beautiful heart-smashing loveliness of her harsh, cruel world.

Plain Kate was the best kind of fairy tale. It was gorgeously written, but those pretty words breathed life into her characters, vitality into her world, and substance into her plot.

So, of course I set my bar for Sorrow's Knot pretty high, and, in some ways, it almost rose to the challenge. In others...well, Sorrow's Knot is no Plain Kate. 

The Yays

Sorrow's Knot has really, really pretty writing. I was totally drawn into the book in that life-sucking way that makes you neglect the things around you because "MY BOOK" *hand flap everything away*

The evocative, storytelling writing smothered me in that book fuzz that blocks out the world, but what kept me there was the mystery that I felt supernaturally compelled to unravel (sorry, I had to get at least one pun out of my system).

I love books with story mythology, and Sorrow's Knot is definitely a book that relies heavily on story mythology. The White Hand creatures were both creepy and tragic, and the final reveal surrounding them was devastating. I only wish this aspect had been delivered with fewer holes and loose strings.

And, the sobbing disappointment

I'm a concrete kind of person. I like artwork that painstakingly recreates reality. I'm not a fan of poetry unless it's the epic kind of poems where they're basically novels with weird line spacing. If a blurb says something like "profound metaphorical journey," I run the other way. I actually like long and clunky info-dumps.  

Sorrow's Knot makes sense in that dreamy profoundly half-logical way episodes like Buffy's dreamscape Restless or Frank Herbert's Dune series make sense. Everyone walks around sagely spouting off nonsense and half-sentences. Most things don't have a fully reasoned explanation and we're just supposed to accept them, because. But the characters say it all with a miasma of authoritative wisdom! So, it's all deep and stuff!

And, oh lord, Sorrow's Knot is pretty much one giant convoluted mess of double speak, vague metaphors, and fuzzy half-explanations. It's also set in a fictional Native American tribe of She-Ra Men Haters Club inductees, so with that double dose of cliche you know it's super extra profound.

And, I don't know, maybe I'm extra bleh about the whole thing because the Magical Indian and the Wise Woman tropes are particular Do Not Want points for me (I'd rather have female and Native American characters who are wise because they're actually wise and not because it's somehow an implicit character trait brought on by their race and sex), but after Plain Kate, I expected something more original from Erin Bow.

And, yes, I know a significant point of the story is actually going against the established and promoting growth to a less insular, rigid society, but that falls flat when the rigid world is the better developed, more memorable part of the story and the push for change is wrapped in convoluted, thin explanations.

The fact that the whole "We do what we do, because." traditional approach is challenged by "We shouldn't do what we do anymore. Just because it's bad and stuff. Yeah!" kinda undermines the whole story. It comes across more like teenage rebellion, ignorant of the whys behind the way things have developed (explanations never given, but unlikely not to exist), instead of a story of logical growth and development.

Also, spoiler if the problem was that they were binding too tightly, then why did they stop binding completely? Was there something inherently wrong with binding in general? If so, then why does the tightness matter? If not, then, again, why stop binding at all? Was there ever then a purpose to binding? And, if so, then why is that reason suddenly gone?

Plain Kate had me crying from the opening chapter (and don't even get me started on the double whammy scenes with Taggle), but Sorrow's Knot never once made me feel. The difference is that Plain Kate made me care about the characters because they had depth and personality. They were nuanced and alive.

Sorrow's Knot's characters were stereotypes. Really worn out stereotypes. Even worse, their characterizations relied almost completely on the stereotypes and never developed beyond them. One character is even switched out for another partway through the story, and it makes no difference because they're almost exactly the same.

They're also constantly dropping dead. Sorrow's Knot has a near-Shakespearean tragedy body count, and yet I couldn't muster up a single care.

Add in a dash of "inexplicable" and a heaping of "bleary sagacity" and not only were the characters thinly developed, but their actions and motivations didn't make a whole lot of sense.

Which brings me to the plot, which also didn't make a whole lot of sense. Now, when I was in the story, this didn't bother me as much. I was wrapped up in the mystery of the White Hand creatures and the lore and mythology of the world and trying to figure out how they all connected.

All with a nagging feeling that, "NO, THAT MAKES NO SENSE" mixed with "oh please don't let that actually be the explanation." Except it was. The big reveal was that awkward, obvious, and filled-with-holes explanation I was desperately hoping (from very early on in the story) it would not turn out to be.

Add in the rushed ending with its sloppy resolution, loose ends, and 11th hour (and totally unnecessary) romance, and I felt cast adrift without a paddle by the time I turned the final page. 

Bottom line

My initial feeling is that I liked this story a whole lot. There really is a lot of talent and potential in here, even if it never coalesces. And, I wonder, would I have liked it more if I hadn't read Plain Kate first? I'd say maybe yes, but then I remember all the logical inconsistencies and plot holes, so, maybe not.

But, Plain Kate was so much more, whereas Sorrow's Knot is so worn, and my crushing disappointment is near overwhelming. Both contain underlying messages of growing up, grief, and letting go, but one does it with subtle finesse and tenderness, expertly balancing the comfortingly familiar fairy tale frame with stunning originality. The other relies on stereotypes, cliches, and muddy allusions, none of which resonated with me.

This is a standalone, though there are possibilities for more.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Do you have any questions about Sorrow's Knot that I haven't addressed?
Feel free to ask in the comments!



  1. Aw, so sorry this one didn't work for you, Smalls. I know how much you loved Plain Kate. This has happened to be numerous times this year and each time it was a big blow to my reading heart. Hope your next read doesn't let you down.

    1. I'm sorry similar experiences have happened to you too. It IS a big blow to our reading hearts when this happens :(

  2. Lol, I remembered how much you loved Plain Kate but then decided not to request this one because I didn't like the cover. I think that's the first time where the cover steered me correctly :)

    Sorry this wasn't what you were hoping for, Small. Hope your next read is a lot better.

    1. I didn't like the cover either! I should have listened to my inner cover judge :P


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