skygiants: Hazel, from the cover of Breadcrumbs, about to venture into the Snow Queen's forest (into the woods)
With Sorrow's Knot I think I have now finished reading everything from Erin Bow's backlog, which is good in that I have consistently enjoyed it all, but bad in that I have no more Erin Bow backlog.

All of Erin Bow's work (I can now say, having read all of it) is in some way about death and undeath and the wildly unhealthy ways in which human beings react to loss; however, Sorrow's Knot is EVEN MORE explicitly about this than most. The book focuses on Otter and her friends Kestrel and Cricket, who are all pretty sure they know what they're going to do when they grow up: Kestel is going to be a ranger, Cricket is going to become a storyteller (despite being a boy and getting a certain degree of side-eye for deciding to stay in the women's village at all -- everyone knows it's dangerous in the forest and boys don't have any power to protect themselves with, sorry boys!), and Otter is going to train with her mother Willow and Willow's teacher Tamarack to learn the very important job of being a binder, aka Person Who Stops The Dead From Coming Back And Killing Us All.

Then Tamarack dies -- and then Willow abruptly and without explanation decides she doesn't want Otter becoming a binder after all -- and then the knots that stop the dead from coming back to haunt the living begin unraveling -- and then more people die -- and then Otter and friends get to go on a road trip! It's not a super fun road trip and it unsurprisingly features several close encounters with the dead.

I really liked the worldbuilding and the slow and careful work that Bow does to build out the daily lives of the characters and the culture -- it's a North American-based world without European influence, and I'm certainly not qualified to comment on how well it's done, but to me it felt interesting and non-obvious. Also, Otter's world is almost entirely composed of women and everything revolves around Significant Mother-Daughter Relationships and it's great, although Erin Bow sadly had not yet discovered lesbians as of this book. (Though I feel like perhaps this is the book that led to her discovering lesbians? Like, I do wonder if someone came up to Erin Bow and pointed out that she'd written a matriarchal village where Actual Heterosexual Romance is explicitly rare and still somehow only featured Actual Heterosexual Romance onscreen, and Erin Bow was like 'WHOOPS OK SORRY I'LL MAKE IT UP TO YOU' and then we got The Scorpion Rules. Which, I mean, if this is the case, I guess I'm not complaining, I'm very happy to have The Scorpion Rules!)

I also really liked the importance of stories and storytelling and lore and bits and pieces of information shared and not shared, but the pacing of the way those stories are shared with the reader sometimes felt a little off to me; there were occasionally times, especially towards the end, when I felt like the book was leading me to expect a Big Reveal that had already been revealed. But, I mean, the point of the book is not really to Reveal, it's to examine grief -- and as I have mentioned above, Bow is exceptionally good on grief.
skygiants: Jupiter from Jupiter Ascending, floating over the crowd in her space prom gown (space princess)
I have read some great sequels this sequel season, but I think my actual favorite sequel so far is the sequel to Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules, The Swan Riders. In fact it is probably one of my favorite books this year.

The titular Swan Riders are an army of UN-aid-bringers/hostage-executioners/convenient-bodies-for-possession at the service of Talis, the five-hundred-year-old manic artificial intelligence who keeps peace on earth through the use of hostage children and the occasional missile strike. In this book, our heroine Princess Greta of the Pan-Polar Alliance ends up on a wacky road trip with Talis and several Swan Riders. It's a fun time!

The Scorpion Rules is a YA dystopia -- it hits all the beats, and then it goes on to subvert most of them in a way I really enjoy, but, I mean, it's still got the shape of it. It's poured into that structural mold.

The Swan Riders launches off of The Scorpion Rules, but it is definitely not Book Two of a YA dystopia trilogy. In no way is it poured into that mold at all. Like, there is a resistance and our heroine has been adopted as a figurehead, but that's not really what Erin Bow cares about, Erin Bow is BUSY focusing on complex negotiations of humanity and artificial intelligence and sacrifice and loss of self and she just does not have TIME to conform to the standard story beats of a YA dystopia while she's at it.

(As I said on Twitter: people becoming AI! AI becoming human! IT'S A ROBOT BAR MITZVAH.'s not actually a robot bar mitzvah, but there is at one point a thematically significant party with cake, plus a number of angry robots in tiny boxes, SO.)

I would put The Swan Riders next to the Ancillary Justice series on my bookshelf if I was sorting my books thematically (which I don't in reality, but enjoy as a thought exercise). It's not that they're all that similar, as far as actual reading experience goes, but I would bet money that both Erin Bow and Ann Leckie read the Ship Who... series in their youth before going on to write something much, much better.
skygiants: Kraehe from Princess Tutu embracing Mytho with one hand and holding her other out to a flock of ravens (uses of enchantment)
I liked The Scorpion Rules enough that I went looking for other Erin Bow books and found Plain Kate, which is the kind of middle-grade fairy tale that's sharper and darker than a good many adult novels.

When a mysterious peddler tries to buy her shadow in exchange for her heart's desire, protagonist Kate is very clear on the fact that it's a VERY BAD idea to make a deal with him. However, Kate's a strange-looking orphan girl who's suspiciously good at wood-carving, and doesn't have enough money to apprentice to a Guild so she can actually sell the things she makes -- which would be difficult enough if it were not a bad harvest, and people were not on the lookout for witches to blame for it. Without any options left, Kate makes the deal and trades away her shadow in exchange for some good travel and camping supplies so she can leave town.

She doesn't actually ask for her heart's desire -- not to be alone anymore -- but the peddler gives her cat the ability to talk anyway, as kind of a freebie.

And, of course, he warns her that she might want to try very hard to find people that will take her in before anyone notices that her shadow is disappearing.

Over the course of the rest of the book, Kate discovers why the peddler wants her shadow, and what he plans to do with it, and what she's going to have to do to stop it. It's not good! People definitely die! The book itself is very good, though, and works through cycles of violence and revenge with compassion for the people caught up in them. Kate spends a big chunk of the book traveling with the Roamers -- Romani or equivalent -- and although I am no expert, I liked the way they were written, as people with different customs to the rest of the country around them but generally no more or less fallible than anyone else. (Though, on another note, the peddler and one other character are both Magical Albinos.) Her most important relationships in the book are all really interesting and complex: her friendship with Drina, a Roamer girl who wants to help Kate but may be overestimating her ability to do so; her non-romantic, almost Stockholm-ish tie to the peddler; and, of course, the cat, who is SUCH A GOOD AND CATLIKE CAT.

Spoilers for those who want to know in advance about risks to animals )
skygiants: Jupiter from Jupiter Ascending, floating over the crowd in her space prom gown (space princess)
OK, I'm just going to quote a whole huge paragraph from the jacket summary for The Scorpion Rules:

Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday. Until then she lives in the Precepture school with the daughters and sons of the world’s leaders. Like them, she is taught to obey the machines that control their lives. Like them, she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must. But everything changes when a new hostage arrives. Elián is a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught. And he opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the system they live under—and to her own power.

There are LOTS of keywords in here that line up pretty much exactly with current trends in YA dystopia -- a Special Girl! who meets a Special Boy! who Doesn't Follow The Rules! Sheeple! WAKING UP! probably in first person present tense! AND THEN THEY LEAD A REVOLUTION -- and it is kind of a brilliant example of marketing misdirection because this book is actually very deliberately setting out not to do most of these things?

(It's also not in first person present tense. THANK GOODNESS. I don't know why first person past tense, such a little change, is so much better and more capable of conveying character, AND YET, SOMEHOW.

Also also, there are no sheeple, but there are asshole goats, which is as it should be. All goats are assholes.)

Like, OK, yes, Greta does live in a world controlled by a slightly psychotic AI, and the AI is going to kill her if her country goes to war for something that is out of her control, and that's crappy and pretty horrible for Greta and the other kids in her situation, specifically. But, I mean -- as a war deterrent, as a small sacrifice that makes it significantly less likely that millions of other people will die -- does it work? As a terrible thing, is it better or worse than many of the other fairly terrible things that happen in global geopolitics?

The book doesn't really have answers to these questions, it does not try to tell you where The Line Should Be Drawn, which is a thing I like. I like a great deal about this book. Not everything (gonna take a moment here to side-eye a little Erin Bow's occasionally lazy portrayals of some of international baby royals, especially Thandi, the Xhosa princess whose initial characterization largely consists of 'ALWAYS ANGRY'), but a lot about it, which I am trying to lay out without spoiling, because I think it's worth not spoiling. And worth reading! Come for the earnest and responsible baby royals, and the weird and loving and monstrous AIs, and the affectionate descriptions of farming, and the asshole goats, and the important relationships between women, and the actually really good Obligatory YA Love Triangle, like, you don't believe me now, I know, but I SWEAR TO YOU I DO NOT SAY THIS LIGHTLY, if you trust me you don't need to click this very spoilery spoiler-cut! but I will understand if you don't trust me )

(note: comments also have spoilers)


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