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Plain Kate by Erin Bow

October 15, 2010

Before I get started, the usual description is required:

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 charms are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade” — a dangerous nickname in a town 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 town that seems set to burn her, 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 that she can’t live shadowless forever — and that Linay’s designs are darker than she ever dreamed.

You should know up front that my review is going to be entirely skewed by my perspective and, for lack of a better term, issues. Erin Bow is a talented writer. She tells a good story and she creates an enjoyable fantasy world. But I was disappointed in this book and my disappointment is going to be spoilery, so read on with caution.

Plain Kate tells the story of a woodcarver’s daughter. The name is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those around Kate say that her name is fitting and Kate agrees. This doesn’t matter to Kate. She has her father and her carving and that has always been enough for her. Which makes it all the more devastating when he dies. It also leaves Kate a destitute orphan in a town that is both unkind and superstitious. For a time, Kate subsists by carving “objarka”, which are like charms to ward off evil. Her only companion is a tomcat named Taggle. She sleeps in the drawer of her father’s market stall. The village buy her objarka but are also a bit afraid of her. She is never fully accepted and is often suspected of witchcraft. Bow’s world is a little like Medieval England. There’s definitely no technology and any and misfortunes and tragedies are marked down to witchcraft.

Enter Linay, a witch. He comes to Kate’s town to do awful things, the least of which is encourage Kate’s fellow villagers to suspect her of witchcraft. He does this with the hope of making Kate desperate enough to trade him her soul. At first, Kate refuses, but when her drawer is attacked with an ax while she is sleeping in it, she knows that she has no choice but to leave. She makes a trade with Linay that will enable her to leave the village. Though Kate only asks for supplies, she finds that her deal with Linay has left her with a bonus gift–her cat, Taggle, can speak.

Though Kate intends to live in the woods, the one man who is sympathetic to her, introduces her to the Roamers. The Roamers are clearly modeled after the Roma, or Gypsies. They live in caravans and have lots of rules about bathing and hygiene that resembles things I’ve heard about Romani traditions and beliefs. Kate’s skill as a carver gets her opportunity to earn a place in the clan. She also meets Daj, who serves as a mother figure to many, including another young woman named Drina. Drina and Kate become close friends. Kate is soon forced to confide in Drina about her lack of shadow and her talking cat. It seems that Drina has a secret, too, though. Her mother was a witch and taught her some magic. Since magic is so reviled in their society, each girl has a potentially dangerous secret.

Being shadowless, however, isn’t something that Kate can hide forever. The bad weather helps her keep it secret, but Kate knows that she will eventually die without a shadow. Kate and Drina scheme to find a way to get Kate’s shadow back, but Drina’s knowledge is incomplete. The results of Drina’s fumblings have a terrifying result and things get even worse than ever for Kate.

My overwhelming complaint with this story was that it was so tragic. At the beginning of the novel, Kate loses her father. Her luck only gets worse from there. She never has a chance to get out from under her misfortunes, even at the end of the novel. I don’t mind angst in a novel. It can be extraordinarily delicious when done right. But Kate’s story depressed me. I mean, the girl just couldn’t get a break. I felt like crawling under my covers and shutting the whole world out, even if Kate didn’t. This is where my personal biases come into play. Erin Bow has talent. She has crafted a solid historical fantasy that I feel certain others will like. But when I found out that this was not going to be a sequel and that there wasn’t going to be a chance for Kate’s life to seriously improve, it was like being hit with an anvil. I don’t like ending a story like that. I prefer to be left with a sort of uplifted feeling. Life is too short to be depressed by books. I know that some people don’t feel that way, but those people probably don’t mind novels where the narrator dies at the end. I’m looking at you, Jodi Picoult. I know you can see me giving you the evil eye.

What else didn’t I like? Well, Linay. He crosses the line from uncomfortably bad into evil. I really, really expected things to turn out differently, even to the very end. When I got to the denouement, I nearly sobbed. This was made worse by the fact that there is basically no one Kate can count on by the end of the novel. She’s betrayed by one and all. Sure, there are a few consolation prizes thrown in there at the end, but I sure as heck wouldn’t want Kate’s life and I definitely don’t buy the last line of the novel. No way, no how.

I have to give Bow points for good writing. My main niggles with the novel were with its depressing story. I think that the characterization was good, and probably right on, but I don’t care to read stories about so many unredeeming people. Again, my stuff. I would recommend this book for those who don’t have a problem with bleakness in their books. Especially to lovers of historical fantasy. I’d be willing to read something else by Erin Bow, but next time I’ll take a peek at the back of the book before I buy.

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