Sunday, September 5, 2010
Plain Kate - Erin Bow
Title: Plain Kate
Author: Erin Bow
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 311 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: September 2, 2010
Finished: September 5, 2010
From the inside cover:
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.
Plain Kate is a YA book that was heavily profiled at BEA (Book Expo America) back in May, but since I didn't get to go, I'll continue to be jealous of everyone that went and received signed advanced reader copies and got to meet the author in person. Plain Kate came recommended for a reason: it's well written, tugs on the heartstrings, and has probably the best talking cat I've ever seen in children's/YA literature. The fact that the author is Canadian and lives someplace other than Toronto is a pretty nice bonus as well.
Plain Kate takes place in a medieval Russian countryside setting complete with witch burnings. Katerina Svetlana (called Plain Kate), lives with her wood carver father in the village of Samilae. All she wants is to become her father's apprentice, but when her father dies and leaves her all alone, she must learn to survive in a town that believes she is a witch because they think her amazing ability as a carver can't possibly be natural. Years later when Plain Kate decides she must flee the town for her own safety, a witch named Linay offers her her heart's desire (which ends up being the gift of speech for her cat Taggle) in return for her shadow. Knowing the lack of a shadow will make people target her even more, Plain Kate travels in search of a place to belong. Along the way she becomes tangled up Linay's plans for revenge.
Kate starts out very vulnerable and weak. She's driven out of her town, essentially used by Linay, nearly killed by the Roamers she stays with, and nearly killed again as a direct result of Linay's plan. She has no reason to care about what happens to anybody, they thought her a witch and tried to kill her, or tried to burn her for the same reason. If I were Kate, I'd probably say "the hell with all you guys, I'm outta here". But Kate sees that the only way to combat fear is to love, that there is good in the world that deserves saving despite the fact that the general populace probably could benefit some smacking around by a witch. I love how little by little the "plain" part of Kate's nickname gets used less and less to coincide with her increasing strength as an individual.
The book is written like someone's telling you a fairy tale, which is a style I quite enjoy. I loved all the characters, though for various reasons. Taggle was amazing, he really is the best talking cat character I've seen in books, and there's quite a few out there. The author got the general cat personality so perfectly that Taggle's voice could be the monologue of any cat...and I'm sure if the cat owners I know read this book, they'd agree with me. Kate is very realistic and likable as a female lead despite all the crap she goes through, and she never gets whiny (thank you, gods of printed material for a heroine I don't want to smack upside the head). Linay is wonderfully multi-dimensional as the antagonist, you truly feel for him by the end and actually sympathize with him. I also liked Linay's complicated relationship with Kate, how he cares for her but still uses her at the same time to put his master plan into action. The Roamers I wasn't as fond of, mostly because I see their treatment of Kate as most unforgivable, considering their experience with witch burnings you'd think they'd be a little less likely to point fingers.
General things I loved: the Russian atmosphere, the lack of romance (this proves you don't need a stupid love triangle to tell a successful YA story), the use of plain ol' witches as opposed to vampires, werewolves, fairies, shape-shifters, etc. I would've appreciated the inclusion of a glossary due to some of the specialized vocabulary, but I made due without one.
If you're looking for a fresh, different take on the typical YA fantasy novel that's beautifully written with some great themes, read this!
Thoughts on the cover:
Gorgeous. I love the colour scheme, the browns and yellows with the turquoise accents. The image is pretty with Kate and Taggle on the rooftops, and unique compared to the typical YA covers I've seen recently (images of girls with the tops of their faces cut off holding a glowing piece of jewelry). At first I thought Kate was looking out towards the reader, but upon closer inspection the opposite was true: Kate's back is to the reader looking out over the city balancing on the roof.