Thursday, October 14, 2010

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

First: I am in a state of return! Sirens was exhausting but fantastic. I managed a little reading while I was there, and I'll be writing up and scheduling those reviews soon. (I also have many hundreds of e-mails to read, much to my dismay!) Next year's guests will be Justine Larbalestier, Nnedi Okorafor, and Laini Taylor, and the theme will be monsters and the monstrous, so it should be fascinating.

Next: I recently finished Plain Kate by Erin Bow (Scholastic - Arthur A. Levine Books).

Plain KateA friend of mine thinks that I love fairy tale retellings, and maybe I do. I’ve tried writing one, and it’s better buried in the sands of time, in its plot holes, and in its overly flowery language. Yeah, I wrote what I tend to dislike: a too-ornamented historical elsewhere that doesn’t bring anything much new to a traditional tale. I’m not the first, or the only one to have done so, however, and that means that exceptional fairy tale- or folklore-inspired (not the same thing) stories stand out.

Plain Kate is one of those stand out books. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, for some eyeroll-worthy moment to come and give me a reason to stop reading. I kept waiting for the cringeworthy language. I kept waiting for the magic to provide an easy out. But that didn’t happen.

Katerina--Plain Kate--is already a woodworking prodigy when her father dies. Without funds to purchase an apprenticeship, her only choice is to huddle in her father’s old market stall and carve when she can. Bad weather has the locals nervous, and when rumors that she’s a witch start to circulate, she must find a way to disappear. A pale stranger, Linay, offers her help in exchange for her shadow, and in return, Plain Kate gets necessary travel gear and a companion: her cat, Taggle, can talk to her. (I hate books where animals talk, but this year both Taggle and Onion, the camel in Shadow Speaker, really won me over.)

A family friend puts her in touch with the Roamers (Romani), who take her in, but expect her to earn her keep, learn their ways, and stay out of trouble. Trouble comes, though, when her new friend Drina tries to use magic to help Plain Kate get her shadow back, and they’ll have to figure out how to get away from the rusalka that’s killing people--and figure out what Linay is really up to.

I loved the voice in this book: quiet, lyrical, but not in the way of the plot. I love what the author did in terms of making Plain Kate the hero of her own story without being the sole hero of the story; Plain Kate is the point of view character, but the story is well-split between the interests of Kate, her friend Drina, Drina’s mother’s memory, Taggle, and Linay. No one here is entirely good or evil, and this is crucial to the story working, in my opinion. Plain Kate doesn’t find out that she’s a pretty-pretty princess, but must work with the rules and magic of the world she knows. A young adult fantasy novel with no romance, but a strong friendship? A pleasant change!

I think my one wish while reading would have been, perhaps, that the story might have been Drina's instead of Kate's, with the advantage of being an insider to the Romani culture for Drina; I think she would have made just as strong a point of view character, though obviously the story would have been somewhat different overall.

My overall take is a positive one. Have you read Plain Kate? What did you think?

I read this ahead of its nomination, but Plain Kate has been nominated for the 2010 Cybils, and my review will (probably) be published during the first-round vetting period. Thus, the first appearance of this disclaimer:

I read this book as a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards, which means that I may have received a review copy from the publisher (or not; I own a lot of the books in this category). I read some books nominated for the YA fantasy and science fiction category in 2010 before the nomination period, and may have already reviewed them or declined to make a public review; these books might not have a Cybils post tag. As a first-round judge, I was tasked with helping create a shortlist of books. My personal reviews do not reflect any actions or discussions of the judging committee.  

Edit: Book trailer!

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