by Vanessa Di Gregorio
“A long time ago, in a market town by a looping river, there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate.”
Katerina Svetlana is anything but plain. Though she is thin like a stick, she has two different coloured eyes – but that isn’t what is remarkable about her. What is remarkable is that Plain Kate is a skilled carver. And she is shadowless.
This is the type of story that will leave you with chills. It will make you smile, and even laugh; it will make you shiver in horror and shake with anger; and it will break your heart. And even after your heart has mended, this is the type of story that will stay with you.
And as if this cover isn’t gorgeous enough to pique your interest, here’s the wonderful description from Goodreads:
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.
Drawing on Russian folklore, the story immerses you in a world full of culture and depth and language. A world where magic is an exchange of gifts, and where witches are unable to tell lies; where suspicions run deep, and traditions clash. A world of gypsy-like people called Roamers, traveling caravans, and rusalkas. It is a wonderfully realized world that Erin Bow has created; and she has done it very well.
The story’s prose is deceivingly simple; and strangely lyrical. It is not overwritten; but you will find moments of beautiful poetry hidden there. Bow weaves her words with such skill that it will leave you hungry for more. Her imagery is vivid, her descriptions clear, and her storytelling absolutely brilliant.
But what is perhaps Bow’s greatest strength are her characters. They are complex (like everything else in the story), and Bow does not hold back. The characters are charming and likable and incredibly sympathetic: you’ll find yourself rooting for them. And they are all distinctly different. Strong and memorable, Plain Kate Carver herself is outdone by her cat Taggle (who steals the show). His character is wonderful; funny and playful, serious and sarcastic. He is as haughty and self-loving as a lord. But the amount of growth one little cat was able to achieve in so few pages is remarkable. There is no doubt in my mind that everyone who reads this book will fall in love with him.
But Kate is also a joy to read. Though many things happen to her, instead of because of her, she is still a strong character. With folklore and legend, often the hero has no choice. And so in keeping with the spirit of folklore, Kate is a character who has things happen to her; things that are often beyond her control. But she still holds on and fights as much as she can, even though she is not a strong warrior. She is not in possession of any dangerous magic, or otherworldly strength; she is simply skilled at carving. But it is the strength of her heart that really shines through in the end. She is a character who is truly worthy of finding happiness; and you will pray with all your might that she does eventually find it.
Bow’s villains are also beautifully portrayed. They are not wholly evil, and as such are incredibly sympathetic; you will find yourself pitying Linay, and many others who do wrong. For these are character who are driven to do bad things, though they themselves are not evil; it is through fear, or hurt, or anger, or pain that they choose to harm. In my opinion, Bow has created some of the best villains; they are complex and heartbreaking, and so well crafted.
Even Arthur A. Levine couldn’t help but say good things about Plain Kate. Here’s what he had to say in Publisher’s Weekly:
“I’ve been sent a lot of fantasy, some of it quite good. But it’s very rare for a book to stand out for me the way Plain Kate did.”
Levine said Bow’s prose has the “lyrical strength and classic proportions” of master writers. “She is a truly original talent,” Levine said, evidenced by a “breathless e-mail” he got from an associate at the most recent London Book Fair who said Printz Award winner Meg Rosoff had read Plain Kate and couldn’t stop raving about it.
Plain Kate is dark, sorrowful, and haunting; it will pull on your heart-strings and tear at your chest. But it is also full of hope, and joy, and love; you will find yourself smiling in delight. There is death, there is blood; and there is life and laughter. She explores the complexities of relationships and the gray area between right and wrong. And Bow excels at portraying both the light and the dark with such depth that it will leaving you reeling even after you’ve turned the last page of the book. It is a bittersweet story of family and friendship and belonging. Plain Kate reads like an old tale: like folklore. And it is a wonder to behold.
I highly recommend this book; it is as chilling and complex as Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and is so full of heart. In fact, it’s become one of my favourite books ever. I cried so many times; honestly, I thought a piece of my heart broke. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. This story touched me, and I know it’s one I’m not likely to forget. If Kate doesn’t capture your heart, then Taggle surely will. Definitely put this on your list; you won’t regret it.
Book received from Publisher
Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.