Thursday, 12 July 2012

Book Review: The Knot-Shop Man

Well, "books review" really as the Knot Shop Man by David Whiteland is a set of four books sold as a set and delivered bound in a length of rope with an interesting knot. The four books are titled after the four classical elements and have themes which loosely reflect their respective elements.

About the Author
David Whiteland is a UK-based writer with a long-standing web-presence at where he hosts his fiendishly clever on-line puzzle/story Planetarium, the archives of "the UK's first web-comic", The Concuspidor & the Grand Wizard of Many Things and a separate site for his Way of the Exploding Pen/Fudebakudo martial arts work, which seems to dance on the line between serious and spoof. I'm no martial artists so I can't quite say for sure.

What you won't find so easily is the one other publication by Whiteland which I own: The Book of Pages, a wonderful Zen parable set in the near future and illustrated on every page with Whiteland's own rather jaunty images. Something of a little gem, The Book of Pages was apparently the subject of a contractual dispute which led to it being removed from distribution. Still, eBay might turn up something.

Whiteland had some AD&D scenarios published back in the day in White Dwarf and Fantasy Chronicles (an short-lived UK gaming mag), the most well known of which was probably "The Beholder Contracts" in Fantasy Chronicles #3 which I hope to get put online as a PDF sometime before the heat death of the universe, or at least slightly thereafter. It is from this scenario (and not the monster of the same name, which has nothing to do with the scenario) that Whiteland took the name for his main website. As a result there is a slight D&D tinge in the Knot-Shop Man with its thieves guild and shape-shifting dragons, although I might be accused of parochialism if I say that it's a distinctly British take on D&D in the way that early White Dwarf could be when at its best.

Because of the unfortunate experience with Book of Pages, Whiteland decided to try self-publishing first with the book of Fudebakudo and then with Knot-Shop Man.

Air, Earth, Fire, and Water
The protagonists of each book are children and probably the books would work well as bedtime stories but they have a background and structure rooted in Whiteland's interest in Zen as well as D&D and this gives the overall set a slightly more profound feel when one closes the last cover.

One unusual aspect of the set is that there is no internal order between the volumes and they can be read in any order although there are subtle hints here and there which connect them together. The style is reminiscent of "original" fairy stories, the sort where evil queens might end up forced to dance themselves to death by wearing red-hot iron shoes and curious little girls over their heads might not be rescued by a passing lumberjack. Or, might not want rescued from their fate at all.

The primary connection between the books is the titular Knot-Shop Man who runs what is recognizable as the classic "magic shop" from so many stories and gameworlds - it occupies a fairly unremarkable plot in the towns it appears in and nobody seems very clear as to when it appeared or who the proprietor might be or who he may be paying rent to. Also in the tradition of such shops, and particularly (I think) Mr Ben's costume shop, the ostensible purpose of the shop - to sell rope and perhaps help with knots - seems to occupy very little of the shopkeeper's mind and what he is actually selling is rather more abstract.

It's pretty clear from early on that the Knot-Shop Man is in fact a dragon, one of a pair. At the beginning of history the dragon and his mate were separated at a conceptual level beyond any mere physical distance and the four stories form part of the male dragon's on-going efforts to find ways to bind them together again at least for brief periods. To do this he needs to tie a complex knot which is in the form of a journey through a strange underworld place - Arxnodorum - where he himself can not go, and this is where the children come into the picture.

Each child is in need of something and of course the Knot-Shop Man is likewise in need of something. In each case, what the child wants can be obtained, or fixed, by manipulating the knots which bind the universe together and which, as one of the original tiers of those knots, the shopkeeper is able to tie.

Not everyone in the world of the books is unaware of who the Knot Shop Man is and some of them, like the gnomes who run the Underneath, are mostly friendly, while some of them are hostile. The friendly sorts tend to see the dragon's use of the children as fair bargains for understandable reasons while the hostile sorts play up the one-sidedness of the risks, as the journey each child has to undertake as their payment for the dragon's help is apparently a long way from being a safe one.

Each such journey takes the child through the allegorical city's many paths which wind over and under each other, passing through or near many "encounter areas" wherein live people and beings malign as well as benevolent. It's perhaps this aspect of the set which reminds me most of something that one would meet in a game of AD&D.

The unusual internal structure of the set is strangely reminiscent of a loose knot and perhaps too loose a knot at that, in some ways. There is no feel of the overall story building to a climax as the books progress and that slightly robs it of some of the power I think it might have had. Instead Whiteland weaves an air of timelessness; the books can be read in any order but who's to say that the events do not overlap?

The central concept of knots is never far below the surface and several of the stories and sub-stories (for there are several secondary tales which illuminate or set up the main stories) deal with magic based upon what happens when, for example, people loosen the knots that tie heat to fire or lightness to air, or wetness to water. It is an intriguing approach which at least might inspire some new D&D spells for one's game or perhaps a whole new magic system for a campaign.

The books are slightly illustrated. There are some pictures of knots at the front of each book, a map of each child's intended route through Arxnodorum and each dust jacket has an illustration relating to one of the sub-stories on the inside front fly. I personally would have liked these to have been more prominent somehow as I really like the style.

Overall, the word I would use is "unique", possibly followed by "special" and that goes for the the external structure too. The Knot-Shop Man's four hardback books have beautifully made embossed bindings coloured to reflect their element and are printed on high quality paper in Don Knuth's Computer Modern typeface which is as fine face for body text as you can hope for (as a fan of Knuth's work I may be biased on this point). The fact that the books are literally bound together with 3/16" rope makes them a bit of a problem to stick on the shelf but certainly makes them a catch the eye. The knot is a bit tricky to retie, but there are instructions provided.

Price Problems
There's no getting away from the fact that we're talking about four hardback books in a very limited (200 copies only) print run and although they are only about 160 pages each it still adds up, specifically to £50. There's not much I can say about this other than they're worth it, particularly if you live in the UK and are only looking at paying £7.50 postage (or nothing if you can arrange hand delivery). Europe isn't too bad but further away really hurts at £21. And people in countries like Canada simply can't have them!

As a self-published effort the Knot-Shop Man illustrates both the value of going it alone - it would be hard to have such tight control over specifications even if you could find a publisher - and the problems - distribution and perhaps print run would almost certainly be more economical.

But if you've got some money to flash about and you're looking for some fresh ideas and a collection of  stories that bind together to make something much more intricate than the parts would suggest, why not go along to Beholder and see if there's some Knot-Shop Man sets left?


  1. Nice; always interesting to read about stuff I have never heard of. Thanks!

    1. Alas, I suspect the postage to Japan may be very substantial!