fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow fantasy book reviewsSorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow

Sorrow’s Knot had some big footsteps in which to follow, since Erin Bow’s debut novel Plain Kate was pretty terrific. But I’m pleased to report that Sorrow’s Knot not only lived up to my expectations but exceeded them. This is a fantastic novel, and better than Plain Kate.

Sorrow’s Knot is set in a world that feels a lot like the Pacific Northwest, and draws from (without copying anyone or anything in particular) Native American cultures. The heroine, Otter, is growing up in a village that is almost exclusively made up of women. She is the daughter of Willow, the village’s Binder, whose task it is to bind the dead — both figuratively and literally — so that they cannot return in ghostly form to harm the living. But now Willow is going mad, and making cryptic statements about the binding knots being “wrong” in some way that spells danger for the whole village. When terrible things begin to happen, it’s up to Otter and her friends to piece together disparate bits of lore, get to the root of what’s wrong, and, possibly, change their world.

Bow draws us into the novel from the very beginning with her prose and the unique rhythm of it:

The girl who remade the world was born in winter.


It was the last day of the Nameless Moon, and bitterly cold. For as long as she could, the girl’s mother, whose name was Willow, walked round and round the outside of the midwife’s lodge, leaning on the earthen walls when pains came fiercely. Willow’s hair was full of sweat, and her body was steaming like a hot spring. She was trailed by a mist of ice that glittered in the bitter sunlight. She looked like a comet.


She looked like what she was: a woman of power.

Later, when Bow turns her talents toward describing the restless dead, the result is absolutely spine-chilling. Make no mistake: Sorrow’s Knot is a scary book.

Characterization is terrific: Otter and her friends Kestrel and Cricket are beautifully drawn and have a great bond with plenty of warmth, humor, and sadness to go around, and the novel’s other characters are well-developed too. No one is a cardboard bad guy here and you really feel like you understand where everyone is coming from, even when they make the wrong choices.

As you might guess by the title, there’s a great deal of sorrow in Sorrow’s Knot, and yet to me this is a more hopeful tale than Plain Kate. For all that I loved Plain Kate, there was sometimes a sense that life was just heaping tragedy on Kate nonstop, while Otter gets to have more peaceful moments in the sun between disasters, and more people who love her.

Read this one if you liked Plain Kate, and also if you liked Sarah Beth Durst’s Vessel; like the latter, it’s a story of a young woman who learns something has gone wrong in her people’s spiritual system, and also like Vessel it’s set in a refreshingly non-European world. Read it, too, if you love strong friendships and mother-daughter tales and having the socks scared off you, and romance that’s just enough to add richness to the plot without devouring it. Sorrow’s Knot is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I strongly recommend it.

Sorrow’s Knot — (2013) Publisher: 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?


  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.