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Plain Kate

Plain Kate is one book I kept seeing pop up this year in various places that I knew I had to read.  Everyone who has read it has sung its praises.  In fact, its praises were sung so enthusiastically that I bought it when our library didn't have a copy.  This is a rare thing for me.  I usually have an established trust of an author's work before I buy a book I haven't read first.  Well, I have read this one now and I am here to add my voice to the choir.
Synopsis (from author's website):
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.

Kate is exactly as her nickname describes her, plain.  She is a completely average ordinary girl living a heartbreaking life.  Her story is basically one horrific thing after another coming at her.  She is alone and defenseless in the world and that makes her a target for Linay's manipulations and plans.  Through most of the book Kate isn't at all proactive.  This makes her character realistic.  There are a few who are born with a thirst to be strong and fight.  Some people sink into despair when hardship befalls them.  Most people do what Kate does, find a way to adapt and move on.  However, when the time comes when a hero is needed Kate rises to the occasion.   Despite finding Kate's story moving and admiring her courage greatly I had a difficult time connecting with her character which removed me from being as invested in the book's outcome as I otherwise might have been.  One character I did connect with was her cat Taggle.  He talks and everything he says so absolutely cat that it is hilarious.

Linay is a complex antagonist and I really liked that.  He is not a symbol of all things evil (like many fantasy villains) but a man who has been broken and is at war with himself in many ways.  How do deal with him and what he is doing is difficult for Kate because he is not all bad and they do develop a bond.  I liked the way this played out and how the plot showed that varying shades of gray in the moral decisions the characters were making.

The setting has the feel of medieval Russia.  There is a lot of superstition in the places Kate travels through.  And there is a lot traveling.  For the majority of the book Kate is on the move searching for someplace people won't try to kill her.

Love is the dominant theme of the novel.  However, Plain Kate is unique in that it is a YA novel without a romance, currently a rare find.  In fact romantic love is the only kind of love not explored through this story.  I liked this.  It was refreshing.

I very much like Erin Bow's writing style and am looking forward to reading any future titles by her.


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