Retro Friday Review: Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc
Sometimes there are books that float around that I just know I am going to love but for some strange reason never pick them up. Plain Kate is one of those books. For starters, it's set in Russia (which is like crack to me kids) and it's got a fabulously scrappy talking cat and lots of Hard Times for one determined girl. Sometimes I think I put off reading a book with all the obvious possibility of becoming Something I Will Love just so I don't have to face disappointment if it doesn't quite work out. Anyone else do that? Well, I think I hesitated over Plain Kate because I just wanted it to be good. And just so I don't keep you all was. Good that is.

Just like the cover suggests, Kate walks a fine balance. Life has always been hard in the small Russian town of Samilae but Plain Kate felt safe while close to her beloved father, a talented carver. But when the witch's fever takes her father Kate unexpectedly finds herself all alone in a town not too keen on her obvious talent with a knife for one so young. Rumors of witches are racing across the country and it steadily becomes harder and harder for Plain Kate as she struggles to provide for herself and her loyal cat Taggle. And then the unthinkable happens, the towns' thin approval of Plain Kate suddenly turns to hatred and she is forced to make a dubious bargain with the real and powerful witch Linay. A trade is made: her shadow in exchange for the supplies necessary to flee her home. But the loss of ones' shadow is a gradual thing and Plain Kate knows its absence will mark her forever.

What a perfectly excellent, and all-around satisfying read Plain Kate was. Full of Russian folklore, colorful Roamers wagons, and the two-edged witch's magic. From the beginning I was effortlessly captured by Plain Kate and her no-nonsense take on the life that had been handed to her, despite her seemingly endless supply of bad luck. Take this section that came from the very first chapter. I knew after I had gotten this far that good things lay ahead:
In Kate's little town of Samilae, people thought that there was magic in a knife. A person who could wield a knife well was, in their eyes, halfway to a witch. So Plain Kate was very small the first time someone spat at her and crooked their fingers.

Her father sat her down and spoke to her with great seriousness. "You are not a witch, Katerina. There is magic in the world, and some of it is wholesome, and some of it is not, but it is a thing that is in the blood, and it is not in yours.

"The foolish will always treat you badly, because they think you are not beautiful," he said, and she knew this was true. Plain Kate: She was plain as a stick, and thin as a stick, and flat as a stick. She had one eye the color of river mud and one eye the color of the river. Her nose was too long and her brows were too strong. Her father kissed her twice, once above each eyebrow. "We cannot help what fools think. But understand, it is your skill with a blade that draws this talk. If you want to give up your carving, you have my blessing."

"I will never give it up," she answered.

And he laughed and called her his Brave Star, and taught her to carve even better.
What a father. And what a girl! In this book, there is such beauty to be found in ugly places and yes, even some wholesome magic to be found amid the evil. I especially like it when authors chose not to make their villains completely evil and Erin Bow does a fantastic job at making Linay utterly human. His motivation was expertly described and very believable that by the end I was (almost) hoping for his redemption. With such descriptive writing and flawed characters, I all but ate up the pages following Kate on her journey to find a place where should could belong. Obviously, I'm happy to report that Plain Kate expertly lived up to all my expectations. It's found a place on my bookshelves for good.

Because Everyone Likes A Second Opinion:
Bookshelves of Doom review
The Book Smugglers review
Chachic's Book Nook review
Charlotte's Library review
Good Books & Good Wine review

book source: bought


Chachic said...

Can I just say that it's nice to see you posting here again? :) Glad you liked this one, Michelle! I enjoyed reading it as well.

Holly said...

Ooh, a well drawn villain you say? *adds to TBR*

Janicu said...

Really great review - this is another book I've been meaning to check out. It's good to see mostly positive reviews across the board!

April (BooksandWine) said...

Oh, I want to hug your review and read Plain Kate ALL OVER AGAIN. I just loved Taggle, and especially the no nonsense writing style and the Roamers and all of the Russian bits. LOVED IT.

I'm so glad you loved Plain Kate too and totally feel you on the nervousness about reading a book that seems perfectly you and being scared it will disappoint.

Michelle said...

Chachic - Once again, thank you pointing me towards it!

Holly - *nods* I think you'd like it for sure.

Janice - Yeah, I really couldn't find a less than positive review. Which is sad since i don't think many people know about it.

April - Yup. Hug away :)

Emily said...

Ooh, I really liked Plain Kate! Great review :)