by Erin Bow
Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver's daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden talismans are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade”: a dangerous nickname in a country where witches are hunted and burned in the square.
For Kate and her village have fallen on hard times. Kate’s father has died, leaving her alone in the world. And a mysterious fog now covers the countryside, ruining crops and spreading fear of hunger and sickness. The townspeople are looking for someone to blame, and their eyes have fallen on Kate.
Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he’ll give Kate the means to escape the angry town, and what’s more, he’ll grant her heart’s wish. It’s a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes she can't live shadowless forever -- and that Linay's designs are darker than she ever dreamed.
...hope will break the heart better than any sorrow...
Plain Kate is the type of book I wish I could have read when I was younger. As much as I loved Kate and her world now, I think it would have absolutely worked its way into me when I was a kid. At the same time, though, there's so much to the story that I appreciate as an adult that maybe would have gone unnoticed as a child.
I love a good outsider story, and this one does it really well. Kate, of course, is an outsider, barely eking an existence out of her carvings, waiting for the day the world will turn on her. But she's not the only outsider in the story, by a long shot. Plain Kate is peopled with those who never quite fit in, or cannot fit in, who live on the edges and deal with their pain and Otherness alone. As a kid, I would have just seen that Plain Kate found some other outsiders to share her outsiderness with, but as an adult, I have to praise Bow for subtle injections of reality, even when reality isn't so pretty. I especially appreciated this when it came to Plain Kate's relationship with Linay.
Linay is the villain of the piece, sure. Or, I suppose Linay is a villain of the piece, because really, there are plenty of people not shown at their best, especially in the cities. But Linay is the central Big Bad -- he's got possession of Kate's shadow, and he intends to use it to do some very bad things. But this is where it gets interesting, and where I began to respect Bow as a storyteller. Where most people would leave it at that -- Linay = villain, 'nuff said -- Bow weaves together this relationship between Linay, who is hurting and alone, and Kate, who is hurting and alone. As much as they both know that each wants to undo the plots of the other, they worry about each other and care in this weird, sometimes sweet, almost unhealthy, occasionally heart-breaking, utterly human way*. There's so much gray area in the relationship to connect to and explore on your own, and I absolutely love that. It's one of the most interesting and subtly complex relationships I've read in a book for this age group in awhile.
But beyond impressing me in that regard, Plain Kate is a just-plain-fun read. I loved the characters -- Taggle, especially -- and the adventure. It's essentially a race against time, so there's that fantastic edge-of-your-seatness which makes it fun to read. There's also great world set up, and I liked exploring it with/through Kate. Bow took a culture (or, a couple of them, I guess) that are familiar enough to fall into, but distant enough to be intriguing, and she added her own spin. The only thing that knocked this back from near-perfect was the ending. Don't get me wrong, and don't let this hold you back from reading it, but I wasn't as happy with the end as I was with the rest of the book. And it's not necessarily what happens, either (though I was frowny-face at times); it's more that there was a sparkle and power to the rest of the book that I felt was a little lacking at the end. It was still good, but it -- hmm, there was a slight disconnect, if that makes sense.
But all in all, a definite fun, fast read with characters you'll remember. I would especially recommend this to teachers for their classrooms, as I think a lot of school kids could get a lot of enjoyment out of this.
*I'm sorry, that was a really long sentence. But I meant all of it.
Here's my teaser of the book:
And here's the book trailer (I like this one!):
[Please note, this reading is from an ARC, so the final version may differ.]