Plain Kate by Erin Bow. ★★★★
I started Plain Kate thinking I’d be getting a fairly simplistic YA fantasy story. Instead this book ended up ripping my heart out and stomping on it!
Kate is the orphaned daughter of a woodcarver who exists on the scraps of money she makes from her carving and the town residents’s good graces. But whenever Kate’s homeland hits hard times, murmurings about witches begin. And eventually someone is burned. As the crops fail, Kate begins to be blamed. In an effort to escape she makes a deal with a shadowy man known as Linay. She sells her shadow in exchange for the goods she needs to escape, but as her shadow fades away, she’ll look more and more like a witch.
Plain Kate reminds me of the fantasy stories I grew up with, particularly those of Diana Wynne Jones. It’s not focused on action or romance (of which there is none) like the majority of current YA fantasies. It has something of a fairy tale about it, but it’s unexpectedly dark in that it doesn’t flinch away from showing the brutality and hatred of the witch hunts. It’s simply but gracefully told, and by the end I was unexpectedly emotional.
Most of the genuinely intriguing elements of Plain Kate come in to play during the second half of the novel, limiting my ability to talk about them much here. I will say that the character of Linay took on greater depth than I initially supposed and became a surprisingly sympathetic villain. I also liked that one of Kate’s most important relationships was her friendship with another girl, as female friendship doesn’t often get such focus.
Plain Kate is a gem of a book, one that I’d recommend for fans of old school YA fantasy like Garth Nix’s Sabriel or Diana Wynne Jones’s work. I would highly recommend it.