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Erin Bow – Plain Kate

October 17, 2012

114. Plain Kate by Erin Bow (2010)

Length: 314 pages
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Started/Finished: 13 October 2012 (read-a-thon!)

Where did it come from? BookMooch.
Why do I have it? Darla’s fault.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 17 March 2012.

Kate needs to find a
home before she loses her
shadow completely.

Summary: Plain Kate may not be beautiful, but she was trained by her father to be a skilled carver. However, when her father dies, Plain Kate is left to fend for herself, and suddenly her carving skills become evidence that there is something different about her… and different is a dangerous thing to be when her small village is stricken with hunger and illness. Kate knows her carvings aren’t real magic – not like the magic being done by Linay, the strange man who appeared in town on his boat, and has offered to trade Plain Kate’s heart’s desire in exchange for her shadow. But when the whispers of “witch” grow too loud, Plain Kate has to leave town in the company of a band of Roamers. All Plain Kate wants is somewhere to belong, where she doesn’t have to feel alone, but she can’t survive forever without her shadow, and getting it back from Linay is not going to be an easy proposition.

Review: This book was a wonderful surprise. It’s mid-grade fantasy, which can be hit-or-miss for me, but in this case, it was a big hit. The setting is vaguely medieval, as is a lot of fantasy, but in this case, it’s Russian-flavored medieval, which was an interesting change, and I liked the incorporation of eastern European folklore into the plot. The characters were great – Plain Kate’s incredibly sympathetic, and Taggle is perhaps the best literary cat that I’ve come across in a long time (and I am not a cat person.)

But what I thought was best, and what surprised me most, was the level of depth and of maturity throughout the book. I called it mid-grade, and there’s nothing in the style or the content that would make it inappropriate for that age. But at the same time, it’s a story that doesn’t pull its punches, that puts its characters in some difficult places and forces them to make horrible hard decisions. It’s a story that is not about black and white, but lives in the grey area, with understandable motivations on everyone’s parts, and with even the heroine making some questionable choices. The writing style is also surprisingly mature – again, not anything that couldn’t be handled by a kid, but more lyrical and lovely and poignant than I was expecting.

It’s a quick read, but it does take a fair amount of time before the book gets down to the business of the main plot. But I was drawn in by Bow’s writing style and by her characters right from the get-go, and stayed totally absorbed until the last page. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended for fans of young adult or mid-grade fantasy. It’s an original story, not one that I’ve seen done before, although it does incorporate some folkloric elements, and it’s beautifully told with some real emotional depth.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: 21 Pages, Books and Other Thoughts, Good Books and Good Wine, Small Review, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: A long time ago, in a market town by a looping river, there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 4: “The cressets in the market square – the iron nests of fire where people gathered to trade news and roast fish – became a place of hisses and silences.” – a metal basket mounted on a pole in which oil or pitch was burned for illumination
  • p. 21: “His zupan‘s loose skirts swirled around his knees and its undone sleeves swung as he walked.” – a long garment, always lined, worn by almost all males of the noble social class in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the beginning of the 16th to half of the 18th century.
  • p. 134: “It was a moment, even, before they became people: a man with one blind eye, another whose neck was thick with the lumps and weeping wounds of scrofula.” – A form of tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes, especially of the neck, that is most common in children and is usually spread by unpasteurized milk from infected cows.
  • p. 186: “Plain Kate touched one of the hames: ash wood, old but well-made, its inner curve smooth as a lady’s wrist.” – a pair of curved metal (or sometimes wooden) pieces lying on the horse collar of a horse harness, taking the pull from the traces.
  • p. 273: “The cat regarded her thoughtfully, steady as two isinglass lamps.” – mica in thin, transparent sheets.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2012 10:20 am

    Oh, this book was SO GOOD. It had me weeping by the end, too, so you’re spot-on with the emotional depth comment. I can’t wait until Bow’s next book comes out.

    • October 17, 2012 11:42 am

      Cecelia – I wouldn’t say I was weeping, exactly, but the air did seem to get suddenly dusty and allergenic by the end… :)

  2. October 17, 2012 12:00 pm

    I love the cover of this one; I would have snapped it up as a girl, and I’d still snap it up, on that basis alone (but your recommendation helps a good bit too, especially the part about the cat).

    • October 18, 2012 9:38 am

      BiP – I do think the cover is beautiful, even though I don’t know how representative of the story it is… To me, the cover feels vaguely Victorian, whereas the book is more eastern European, and relatively little of it actually takes place in a city.

  3. October 17, 2012 7:46 pm

    I think you had me at the cat (I AM a cat person), but I also love middle grade books with depth and complexity. On to the ever-growing TBR list!

    • October 18, 2012 9:39 am

      Cheryl – Oh, you’re going to love Taggle, he’s great!

  4. October 17, 2012 10:59 pm

    Thanks for this book review. I think that’s the most intriguing review I’ve heard in a while. I’m definitely going to read this one!

  5. October 21, 2012 4:25 pm

    Oh, Taggle. And Kate Carver.

    I love this book so much and am glad to see you liked it too!

    • October 22, 2012 9:57 am

      April – Definitely! Does she have any other YA books, do you know?

  6. November 6, 2012 7:40 pm

    LOVED this!!


  1. Book Review: Plain Kate by Erin Bow | The Geek Girl Project
  2. Book Review: Plain Kate by Erin Bow | The Geek Girl Project
  3. Plain Kate by Erin Bow | Xcuz Me

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