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Book Review: Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Cover for Plain Kate by Erin BowPlain Kate(1) by Erin Bow is a truly amazing book, one I plan on reading and rereading a few times just to savor the beauty of it.

Kate is a lonely young woman, eking out a bare living in her village after her father, a master carver died. She is better than the guild carver who replaces him, but not guild herself, so she can only take small jobs. Her life gets even worse when a stranger shows up and offers her a trade: Her heart’s desire for her shadow. When she refuses, he manipulates matters so that she has to take the bargain and leave her village anyway. Then she has to decide whether or not to risk what little she has left to stop a mysterious wizard who is traveling down river, leaving death in his wake.

What do I love about it? I love Kate. I love the fact that she is wise enough not to fall for the wizard’s offer right away; he has to work to get what he wants, and even then, she poses problems. I want to say that Plain Kate is a strong heroine, and she is, but these days, when I hear the word “strong heroine” I tend to automatically think “Can wield a sword and hunt dragons, just like the heroes,” and that’s fine; I like books like that, but that isn’t Kate. Kate is living a different life, a life of trying to make ends meet when she has no legal livelihood. Her strength hinges not on fighting with a sword, but in refusing to give up. She refuses to lie down and die when she loses her father; she refuses to quit when she is turned away from another home; and she refuses to simply let the wizard carry out his plans, even though she has more to lose than to gain by fighting him. It’s never an easy choice for Kate, but she keeps on; she work, she bargains, and she keeps putting one foot ahead of the other, and that’s impressive.

Cover for Wood Angel by Erin BowI love Taggle. Kate may be wise enough not to bargain for her heart’s desire, but that doesn’t mean the wizard doesn’t give it to her (he has to, or he won’t get what he wants): Her cat becomes her best friend and companion, gaining the gift of speech and slowly, slowly learning how to think and feel as a human does. Taggle swaggers, brags, claims he isn’t following her (“Dogs follow.”), and remains her steadfast friend and companion all through the course of her adventures. Their friendship is both wonderful and, at times, heartbreaking.

And I love the scope of the plot. This is no epic struggle. It is one young woman’s struggle to stay alive. It is her battle with a wizard who does not, after all, want to rule the world. His wants are, as such things go, quite modest. Kate could even help him, and the world, even the country at large, would never know or care. She even likes him, at times. It’s a beautifully compact plot, but its impact is no less for that.

Do I recommend it? Do you have to ask? Yes! Read it for yourself, give it to the middle-grade to young adult readers in your life(2); give it to a few adults as well.

The book also has a gorgeous trailer

Read Erin Bow’s blog here.  Personally, I’m delighted to see that another book, Sorrow’s Knot, is coming out next year, in the fall, and there are still more works in progress.

Note: My thanks to Charlotte, of Charlotte’s Library and Fyrefly, of Fyrefly’s Book Blog, whose reviews led me to this gem.

(1) Published in the UK as Wood Angel. I mention this because I went looking for more books by Erin Bow, and I got all excited at finding another one, and then I realized that this was still Plain Kate. I will add (again) that I really, really wish publishers wouldn’t do this! I wish they never had, as I don’t think it ever made much sense, but it makes even less sense now that people are reading reviews and doing internet searches worldwide.

In this case, there might be a bit of cover-envy involved, as well. Both covers are good, but the Wood Angel cover is extra-evocative.

(2) I admit, I’m still working on all the fine shades between “middle grade” and “young adult.” Then again, I’m not alone: The local library system has two copies, one shelved in “children’s” and one in “general,” so take your pick.


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  1. Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow is Full of Quiet Power | The Geek Girl Project - [...] praised Plain Kate when I reviewed it, and it is a good book; I’m counting on it standing up…

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