“The girl who remade the world was born in winter.”
Otter is one of the Shadowed People. The free women of the forest live without men, for men are powerless against the ever restless dead. Every bit of shadow could conceal one of the three kinds of dead: slip, ghasts, and White Hands. Slip and ghasts are the little dead–unidentifiable spirits of some living form or another, they cannot kill you on their own, just give you a permanent chill, or unmake the flesh that they touch. White Hands, however, were human once, and to be touched by a White Hand means that over the course of nine days the afflicted will gradually go mad, until another Hand eats its way out, leaving the human body nothing but an empty husk. Otter’s mother is a binder, one of the powerful women whose job it is to contain the dead, and it has always been assumed that she would follow in her mother’s footprints to become a binder herself. However, when the death of the eldest binder in the Pinch unleashes a horrific chain of events, Otter’s entire world is turned upside down and everything she thought she knew about the world begins to unravel.
So, first thing first: this book is FREAKING AMAZING. As in, the best book I’ve read so far this year. It’s dark and lyrical and heavy and just so good I can’t stop thinking about it. Erin Bow is nothing short of intimidating–her writing is so achingly beautiful and fresh that there were times when I actually got goosebumps. Just for flavor, here is the first passage in which we meet one of the little dead:
Something was resting in the nest of shadows under a cornstalk, something stirring as Cricket’s hand came near. Something gawk-stretched and ugly as a new-hatched bird with no feathers and skin over its eyes. Something that moved subtly, like the earth moving above something buried. Something struggling and starving.
Gawk-stretched. GAWK-STRETCHED. That pairing of words is so perfect it makes my heart clench a little, and this entire book is full of the same evocative, lyrical language. Erin Bow is the kind of brilliant wordsmith that makes me feel like I should just give up, because I will never, ever be this good. There is a rhythm to her writing that is reminiscent of telling a story around a fire that keeps the shadows back; the repetition of certain phrases (Ware the dead!) and specific stories adds to the feeling that you aren’t reading a book, but sitting at Bow’s feet and being told a story that’s been handed down time untold.
But beyond the writing, what about the story itself? Well, holy creepfest it’s awesome. It reminded me a bit of Garth Nix’s Sabriel (i.e. one of my favorite books ever), in that it takes place in a world where the dead come back and it is up to a chosen few with power to beat them back with almost silly-sounding magic; in Sabriel it was done with a series of bells, and in Sorrow’s Knot it’s done with, well, knots. The villages are guarded by wards, which are elaborate series of knots in magic, living cords created by the binders to keep the dead at bay. Binders are never without their bracelets, which they slip off and cast into elaborate knotted figures when confronted by the dead. This magic is never fully explained, which is one of the few issues I had with the book, but you know what? The story is so god damn good that I only found this slight lack of magical development only a little off-putting.
Beyond all that, though, this is a crazy feminist world in which genders roles are 100% swapped. Because only women have the power to be binders, women are the most valued members of society; men are considered weak and expendable, rendering the entire society matriarchal. Now, worry not – this is not a man-hating diatribe of a book. There are twists that come later that call into question the practice of deeming half of society borderline useless. However, I couldn’t help but love reading about this society of women, deep in the forest, fighting the dead with their magical textiles (a traditionally female craft as well). I did have one major question about this–where the hey are the queers at? I mean, I know that just because this bunch of women chooses to live all isolated, only banging the Water Walkers when they show up to trade, doesn’t mean they’re all a bunch of lesbos. But come on. Just one? Please?
I could go on and on and on forever about how amazing this book is, but I think you get the picture. It’s an incredible story – the first in a while that has kept me up way past my bedtime to find out what happens next. It’s a story about the tension between mothers and daughters, about shattered innocence, about bursting out of your boundaries, about how our souls are nurtured by story, about how we deal with our dead and our grief. It is, in short, a nearly perfect story–chillingly beautiful, universally resonant, and really, really, really creepy. Oh, and there’s even some sweet first love thrown in there! Perfect.
For music I chose Chelsea Wolfe’s “Pale on Pale.” I wanted something sludgy and droning to capture the heavy darkness that permeates much of the book, but wanted a woman’s voice to reflect the extremely Sapphist flavor of the Shadowed People. BOOM.
Where I got it: The library