Friday, January 03, 2014

Neither Ghosts Nor Zombies Nor Vampires

The dead are everywhere in this world; any shadow might contain them. Binders keep the villages safe, but something is wrong in Westmost.  Their binder is not well, her daughter, Otter, is untrained, and the most dangerous of the dead, the White Hands, stalk the village.  Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow: there's your setup.

There's some scary stuff here, and a good story, but what makes this book shine is the what it's about.  It's about chosen family, and about the ties that (forgive me) bind people together.  It's about mistakes--mistakes you don't realize you made, mistakes that have horrible results that could have been prevented if only you knew more.  It's about how life is incredibly messy, both in its strengths and its points of pain. 

There's so much that's cool and interesting and unusual here that are appealing.  The setting is based on a non-specific Native North American idea, but it's not derivative.  The specific trappings are all fantasy, though--the characters have dark hair and brown skin, wear deer hides and make arrowheads from flint, but there's nothing that feels stolen or condescending. 

Also, Westmost is not exactly a matriarchy, but it's a society of women, with only a few men.  Only women have power to bind the dead, so most boys born in the forest villages end up journeying to the plains, which are safer.  This is simply a world of women.

The friendships, though.  That's what really tore my heart out.  Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket are the main characters of the story, and the three are a family, more than anyone else.  And they have each other's backs, always--it's not even a doubt.  The friendships have facets and change, but they are never in doubt, at all.  There is no question of where any of their loyalties lie.  And in the end, really, those friendships are what save the world.

It's not a perfect book--there's a weak point in the middle, where the first crisis has past and the parts of the story that need to align for the second crisis are plopped together a bit heavy-handedly.  And, in a book about how messy life is, the writing style is somewhat stiff, in the manner of formal storytelling (which is a big factor in the story).  But I couldn't stop reading.

I said in a recent review that one of the things I loved about All Our Yesterdays was that it was so honest about how sometimes good and evil are so interdependent that you just can't untwine them; so many books shy away from that.  Well, this book is about how so often, enormous evil happens because someone makes a bad decision that looks innocuous at the time--or a decision that goes unnoticed.  Too often, everyone is able to undo their bad decisions, and the high stakes of the story are edged down because, essentially, everything turns out okay.

But not here.  The bad things that happen, they don't almost happen.  They do happen.  Some tragedies are prevented, but many are not.  There is real loss here, and not everyone gets the happy ending.  I think that's important.  It's definitely authentic.

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