A review of Erin Bow’s Sorrow’s Knot (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille
A great deal of fantasy is focused on the hero’s narrative, masculine figures in a masculine, patriarchal society. Erin Bow creates a female dominated society. Women have powers that males don’t – the power to bind spirits with string. In a place that is filled with the dead, shadowy globs of darkness who consume the living when given the chance, men aren’t safe. They don’t have the skills or the strength to protect themselves, so they leave the society of the women and head to safer areas. The women in this novel are figures of power, complex and diverse, but all possessing an inner strength that centralises them in the narrative. Unlike a lot of fantasy narratives that try to construct women as vulnerable, as damsels in distress who need rescue, these women are the figures of power in their society.
Instead of using the medieval world as an archetype of fantasy to modify for her story as occurs often in high fantasy, Bow creates a distinctly non-European society. Her society is one that is unique, with highly developed rituals that are distinct from the norms of fantasy. This society binds the dead in trees, has girls discover their possible careers at adulthood, organises women into households that are formed based on their career talents rather than their biological relationships (though these sometimes occur as well), doesn’t have marriage and in fact views monogamous pairings as unordinary and things that animals do rather than people, and, a society that is a matriarchy. The world she creates is whole and rich and this difference from the expected tropes of fantasy allows her to distinguish her world and create characters and cultural situations that would not often be found in medieval-like fantasy societies.
When discussing feminist fantasy, I have often heard male authors claim that they have to write women as weak because it is ‘historically accurate’ or ‘accurate for that society’, which is ridiculous since these stories are often not set in real historical periods, but rather other worlds. Bow is able to create a society that right away tells the reader: don’t expect this novel to be disempowering to women. She gets away from all of the baggage associated with the worlds fantasy authors often replicate by expressing this society’s difference.
However, her society is not a feminist utopia. It is set with problems that would face any society – issues of social taboos, the strength of traditions that alienate people who behave in non-traditional ways, and the loss of history. This society has classic human issues embedded in it like the battle between youth and the aged, acts of defiance and punishment, the desire to change social patterns, issues of power and the dangers of too much power, and questions about how the local relates to the wider world.
Carried on from the time of the mytho-historical figure Mad Spider, who first powerfully bound the dead, and first fought the most powerful form the dead can have, White Hands, the art of binding bodies and creating binding wards has been central to Westmost’s society. The village is surrounded by wards to keep out the dead, powerful knots of string that are created by the binders, specialists in the art of magical knot-making. Binders also bind the dead. Whenever anyone dies in Westmost, the binder takes them out of the village and ties them up at the top of trees, asking for the wind to take them away and therefore not have them visit the village with hungry mouths of shadow.
Willow, the most powerful binder since Mad Spider, raises her daughter, Otter, to be the next binder, recognising the same skill in the girl. But, when Willow’s mentor, who has been like a mother figure to her, dies, Willow begins to doubt the whole tradition of binding the dead and worries about the implications of this practice. She is unable to let go of her mentor and calls her back instead of wishing her to the winds. Willow sees that her power is too strong and that binding is a problem… and kicks her daughter out, telling her that she shouldn’t be a binder. Otter feels lost and as though her entire destiny and her family itself has been taken from her.
Skills in this society are kept secrets, only taught by those who have been chosen to be part of a specific career, which means that Otter, by being kicked out of the binder’s tradition, can’t discover this from others. Her friend Kestrel is receiving training as a ranger, and Cricket, one of the few males who decides to stay in the village, is learning to become a storyteller even though males are generally not taught skills, so Otter feels surrounded by those with clear paths while she has none.
Otter begins to notice something about the wards. They seem hungry like the dead. She realises that in keeping the dead out… they are also trapping the living within. The knots seem to pull at people. But, around her mother, all of the knots seem to be loosening, unbinding, and, like Mad Spider, Willow is also being called mad. When the village is attacked by the dead, who manage to get around the wards, Willow, rather than reinforcing the wards, goes out to meet her former mentor, who has become a White Hand. She gets touched by the White Hand, and, unlike other types of the dead who cause bodily harm, White Hands cause psychological harm – they replicate themselves in the body of human begins and eventually take over, dissolving individuality.
Otter is now the only choice for her society as a binder. She only has basic knowledge, but has inherent skills that could help her. Her mother tries to train her to take on the position in her last few days of life, all the while turning into something different. Willow begins to hunger, and Cricket discovers that she is appeased in small ways by the telling of tales. He tells her constant stories to try to help her hold on to her humanity, and then he tells her the one story that is a secret of the storyteller’s craft, a story that is forbidden to be revealed. He tells her that when Mad Spider bound her own mother, she bound her too tightly and Willow mentions that from that time forward, there has been something wrong with the binding of the dead.
Cricket is cast out of his society by the elders for telling secrets to others that are outside of his craft. When Kestrel and Otter follow him because they recognise that more knowledge and a greater breadth of knowledge from all of the other crafts could be helpful, they find him already preyed upon by the dead. The two young women continue on Cricket’s chosen path toward the great city that Mad Spider’s mythical roots began in, seeking to discover the depth of secrets and the reason why things seem wrong with the wards and with binding in general.
Questioning their place in their society now that taboos have led to Cricket’s death, the two begin to challenge all of the assumptions their society has, re-mapping their own history and trying to discover what has been lost to time and the origins of behaviours that their society has taken for granted as the only way to do things. This is a novel about he pushing of the bonds of society, the restrictive net that is cast around social groups, controlling and consuming them. It is only by violating traditions, by questioning them and refusing to follow the rules, that real, powerful change can be made.