Book Review: Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books

Published: 1st September 2010

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 314

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Recommended Reading Age: 12+

Rating: 9/10

Amazon/Goodreads

‘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.’

So I’ll admit, I bought this book purely because of the cover (isn’t it just lovely) and because its been a while since I read a really good children’s fantasy book that adults could equally enjoy.

Simply put: I adored Plain Kate and can say without a doubt it has become one of my favourite reads this year.

The main reason for this was, of course, Taggle. Why is it that talking animals tend to make the best characters (Manchee and Mog I’m looking at you!)? I loved Taggle. Utterly and completely (anyone who knows me won’t be at all surprised by this). Bow captures him perfectly; arrogant, regal, sarcastic and totally adorable. Loyal and protective of Kate, Taggle comes across as very human at times, and hilariously cat-like at others,

Taggle climbed into her lap. “Hello,” he said, then rolled over and peered up at her appealingly, “I am fond of you and present my throat for scratching.”

~ page 215

Their friendship is very special and my absolute favourite part of the book. Kate is alone in the world, her father has died and the local villagers are wary of her because of her quiet nature and expressive carvings. She experiences prejudice and fear from both strangers and those she considers family and throughout it all, it is Taggle who is her one true friend and constant companion.

Kate was a character I really came to admire and like – she is a quiet, determined girl with an inner strength and has had to learn how to survive on her own, relying on the kindness of strangers and her own carving skills. But she also comes across as incredibly vulnerable and yearns to be accepted, to be part of a family. It was wonderful to read a story that focused on an independent, solitary heroine in search of her own place in the world.

Bow’s characters are well drawn and have a complexity you don’t always find in younger children’s literature. Linay, the ‘villain’ of this story isn’t just a corrupt, evil character, his motives are very human and I enjoyed seeing the progression of his character. He does some terrible things, but he also shows Kate kindness, perhaps more than most. His relationship with Kate is compelling right through to the end.

Plain Kate is reminiscent of one of Grimm’s fairy tales. It is has melancholy feel to it, is very dark and quite violent in places. Bow explores different cultures, traditions and beliefs and how suspicion and prejudice can all too easily turn to fear and hatred. But it is also very much a tale of redemption, love, friendship and perseverance. The narrative flows beautifully and is quite lyrical in its simplicity.

This is a lovely story. Some readers may be put off by the quiet tone and pacing of Plain Kate as most of the action does take place in the last third of the book. I found it difficult, at first, to engage with Kate. She is a distant character due to her experiences, but I fell in love with her all the same. The ending is just perfect. Bittersweet, heartbreaking and exactly what it ought to be. The only thing I have to complain about is that I didn’t want it to finish.

Ciri came toddling up to them. He was the young prince of the Roamers, a boy of two, the favorite of the dozen naked and cheerful children who chased chicken and snuck rides on horses in Roamer’s camps. Just now he had Taggle in a headlock.

“Help,” croaked the cat.

Drina shed her anger and pulled boy and cat into her lap. 

“Ciri, Ciri,” she said, and dropped into the Roamer language, a liquid coaxing in which Plain Kate caught only the word ‘cat.’ Ciri unfolded his elbows, and Taggle spilled out, buy-eyed.

Plain Kate picked him up and scratched his ruff. “Thank you for not killing him.” By this time she knew how to flatter a cat: praise of ferocity and civility both.

Taggle preened. “He’s a kitten.” He arranged his dignity around him with a few carefully placed licks. “Else I would have laid such a crosshatch of scratches on him he’d have scales like a fish.”

~ page 105

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