Occasionally, in the middle of all of the books that you like, or mostly like, or really don’t like but wish you did, or love but only with half your heart, there’s a book that changes you a little bit as you read it. It holds you close and when you’ve closed the covers it stays with you. For me, this is one of those rare, wonderful books.
Otter, daughter of Willow, has grown up in the pinch of Westmost, daughter of the binder of the Shadowed People. She has two friends, Kestrel and Cricket, and they are bound together as close as the ward that keeps the dead from their pinch. But then the shadows touch them, and everything changes forever.
This book is about so much: stories, love, family, friendship, growing up. It’s about myths come to life, and fear, and bravery. But it’s so much more than all of that–I’m typing and at the same time feeling myself reduce this alchemy of beauty into its component parts.
This story is heart-stopping from the beginning. I read all but the first few chapters at once, because there was no chance to take a breath, no chance to pull away from Otter and Kestrel and Cricket. At the same time, there’s no lack of character development. In fact, it’s because of the effect that the events have on the characters, Otter especially, that the plot has such strength. I had to keep reading because I had to know what happened. I had to know that they were going to be all right.
I cried for thirty straight pages.
This isn’t a surprise, exactly. After all, Erin Bow’s debut was Plain Kate, and that made me cry a lot too. But not like this.
Otter is not a Chosen One; she has power, but it is a dubious gift. Even more than that, though, the story says over and over again that we can’t make it alone. Friendship saves us. Otter cannot do what she must without her friends; her friends cannot do what they must without her. Kestrel and Cricket and Otter are a triangle, an arrowhead bound closer than anything else. I loved the way their friendship grows and shifts and changes.
I haven’t even said anything about the setting, which is beautifully written. Or the worldbuilding which is both so deep and so effortless looking that I hardly even noticed it until I started thinking about it. Or the way Bow writes a matriarchal society without making it into a huge and overwhelming metaphor; that’s just the way this world is. Or the way everything has resonance: the island, the ravens, the White Hands, the knots. Or the sheer utter bone-deep creepiness of the White Hands, and how Bow manages to make them terrifying and then brilliantly, wonderfully, transform that terror.
Erin Bow is a poet as well as a prose writer and it shows here. The overall effect of the language in Sorrow’s knot is one of spareness, economy. There’s not a word out of place or misused. Words have weight and echoes. And yet, at least for me, the effect was also not one of an overt style that intruded. It’s the rhythm this story had to be told in. There are so many places I could quote from, but here’s only one:
The forest. Bare and straight, darker than skin, the trunks of the pine trees stood in ranks. They went back and back, until they made a blur, like dark mist. The ground under them was mostly bare, cloaked in needles. Gray stone broke from it here and there. It was more than quiet: It ate sound. It was more than shadowy: The shadows watched.
Everything I’ve said is present in the book and real and beautiful. But it doesn’t capture what I want to say about this book. The truth is that I don’t know how to say that. Except what I said at first, that sometimes you find a book with a shock of recognition, like meeting a person and knowing from that first instant that you’ll be friends.
Book source: ARC from Scholastic, after I asked about it at ALA
Book information: Arthur Levine Books, 2013; YA fantasy