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Plain Kate (book review)

September 1, 2010

Plain Kate
Erin Bow
Arthur A. Levine
September 2010 336 pages

I picked this one up at the Book Expo, knowing only that it was “YA fiction with some magic and supernatural.” So I knew I was probably going to like it.
But… wow. Just. Wow.

Plain Kate, a girl who’s “as plain as a stick,” is a talented woodcarver. So talented, that the townsfolk murmur of witchcraft, a rumor that could spell a death sentence, especially as the town suffers famine and looks for someone to blame, or to burn. Fleeing for her life, she strikes a bargain with the mysterious albino, Linay. (Has anyone ever noticed how albinos are almost always bad, or at least dubious, news in literature?) He asks for her shadow, in exchange for helping her to escape. Because magic is always a trade, an exchange. At first, Plain Kate thinks that life without a shadow is no big deal, and that all her problems are solved. But— the creeping mist that leaves sleeping sickness, famine and destruction in its wake, appears to be following Kate, leaving its menacing mark on those she cares about. It may be that Linay’s gift was also a curse, and needs to be undone.

I appreciated the way Bow set up her magic system, and her world in general. There are strong elements of Russian culture and of gypsy culture, reimagined and set against a magic system that relies on gifts, sacrifices and bargains. Bow’s apparently won poetry prizes- and you can tell, in the rhythms of her language and her story. The rules and names she sets up for magic and belief underpin her story’s culture, making it whole with its own internal logic. It has the wonderful depth of a newborn fairy tale, one with unfamiliar twists and turns, but the heft of tradition behind it.

A densely, dreamily magic tale, well-told, Plain Kate reminded me of several of my favorites. If you’re a fan of Robin McKinley, particularly Sunshine or Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. Read this if you like the way Guy Gavriel Kay, or Jacqueline Carey draw on recognizable history and culture to fuel their fantastic stories.
For me, this story unfurled in a similar, excellent way to Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead. Plain Kate is also grounded in a reinvention of a culture’s mythic and symbolic history, towards an inventive and engrossing story.

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