PLAIN KATE by Erin Bow
Plain Kate is one of the best books that I’ve read in a long time. The fact the novel is a debut book by a new author and a YA to boot just qualifies it as the best of those as well.
Erin Bow has a natural narrative voice and I fell in love with her character Plain Kate from the first page. The setting is eerie and familiar, and the story is based on Russian folktales.
Kate’s mother died in childbirth and her father, an impoverished woodcutter, raised her and taught her his craft. Unfortunately, he too died and left Kate alone in the world without anyone to care for her. This is the way a lot of YA books begin, with children who are orphaned that have to make their way in the world, but Bow really brings the readers into Kate’s dire straits and makes it a tactile experience for them. Some readers may think that the story is a tad slow at this point, but the pages just mire the character in the dismal future she has.
Kate breaks the law in order to survive. Instead of stealing things as several other orphan children do, she takes on illegal carving jobs. Since she isn’t backed by the local woodcarvers’ guild, she’s not supposed to do any work of that kind. But she has no way of feeding herself if she doesn’t. To her credit, and her dismay, her craft draws clients to her, but it also draws the attention of Guild members.
Her life seems a little brighter when she finds three kittens and raises them, often taking away from herself to care for them. One of them ends up staying with her, and Taggle – the cat – becomes one of the greatest animal companions I’ve ever read about, and I grew up on Andre Norton’s Beastmaster books.
Kate’s luck changes when she meets a fiddler who claims he can grant her heart’s desire if she will only give him her shadow. The magic creeps into this book rather than coming in at a gallop. It’s slow and eerie, and kind of creepy as Kate agrees to the bargain and slowly watches her shadow fade away. The situation is made even worse because the fiddler, Linay, forces her into the trade agreement by making her seem like a witch. That ends up driving her away from the small town that is all she has ever known. That turning point was skillfully delivered. You can see it coming and watch Kate avoid it for a time, but in the end she’s given no choice.
Her heart’s desire, as it turns out, is for Taggle to speak. And once he does, it’s hard for him to keep his mouth shut. That gets Kate into more trouble and she ends up have to travel with a group of Roamers (gypsies) to another town where she isn’t known.
The book settles comfortably into a coming of age tale filled with action and dark magic and betrayal. Bow slips in all the past history of her characters and what’s really going on in nice doses that allows the reader to see what’s coming. And the scenes with the Rusalka (ghost, demon) are downright frightening.
Can’t wait to see this author’s next book.