Book review: 'A Tangle of Knots' is a fair middle-grade magical realist novel

By Rachel Helps

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, March 14 2013 5:38 p.m. MDT

"A TANGLE OF KNOTS," by Lisa Graff, Philomel, $16.99, 230 pages (f) (ages 8-12)

In "A Tangle of Knots," people have magical talents. Cady has a talent for baking the perfect cake and Miss Mallory has a talent for returning lost items to their owners. Other talents, like spitting and whistling, are pretty much useless. The many characters make the book hard to follow at times.

The book also lacks much of the depth of adult fantasy novels; it relies on one character to enact fate and lacks sophisticated world-building. Still, a middle-grader might like how the unlikely events unfold in a magical realism context.

Lisa Graff writes from the perspective of a different narrator every few pages. It's a laudable idea, but its execution leaves the reader unsettled and, since this is a novel for middle-grade readers, probably a bit confusing. The narrative voice remains the same between characters, which makes it difficult to distinguish between them.

Because the various characters sound the same, the story would have improved with fewer characters; the adventurous little brother and the stroke-victim woman could have been eliminated with little impact to the plot.

The events that lead up to the resolution of the "tangle of knots" are contrived by a giant man dedicated to making "fate" happen. Unlikely scenarios are one thing, but to have a deus ex every few chapters is a bit tiring. Graff’s writing is usually clear, but it is occasionally marred by excesses like "for better or for worse" and “without a doubt.”

A good fantasy novel has changes to how society works based on its differences from our world. "A Tangle of Knots" had a few things that reflected a world where some people have a talent while others do not, like scholarships for those without talents. However, these modifications to our world did not extend to the day-to-day lives of the characters.

Cady has a talent for making the perfect cake. It would make sense for her to be disqualified from cake-baking competitions because of her talent, but she isn’t. Graff used talents as a way to add interest to her book without making it an integral part of her fantasy world.

While "A Tangle of Knots" makes for an unsatisfying adult read, a middle-schooler who likes urban fantasy and adventure will probably like this book.

As far as the content, there were two swear words and everything else was clean.

Rachel Helps is a grad school dropout with a bachelor's in psychology. She has a passion for old books and video gaming. Her gaming articles are online at thepretentiousgamer.blogspot.com.

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