Katerina Svetlana, the daughter of a woodcarver, has a rare gift: she can whittle wood with such perfection that her creations often reveal uncomfortable secrets about people, causing them to fear her. First-time YA author Erin Bow uses this premise to create a story set in some long-ago northern country, in which magic and witchcraft compete with honour, duty, and the struggle to survive.
Kate is a wanderer and an orphan. Preying on her loneliness (as well as her power), a stranger offers a trade: he will grant her deepest wish in return for her shadow. A bargain is struck, and Kate enters a whole new world.
And what a violent, unpredictable world it is. Bow pulls no punches when it comes to placing her characters in peril. A mob lynching, a spell involving nightly bloodletting, the burning of suspected witches – all are part of Kate’s journey. She is forced to sacrifice much in order to regain her shadow.
Bow, a published poet, writes exquisitely. We feel Kate’s blistered feet, see her delicate carving, hear the “plosh and clock” of a pole driving a boat down the river. Not a word is wasted: dialogue and description are pared down to essentials in a story that moves, for the most part, at an unrelenting pace.
As a heroine, Kate is anything but “plain.” Fierce, brave, honest, and determined, she meets every challenge head on. Her fierceness masks her fear, and her determination to make things right is held back by her self-doubt. She’s a heroine with flaws, and the reader desperately wants her to succeed in her quest.
Original and sometimes disturbing, Plain Kate is a compelling story of dark magic and a remarkable debut by a talented writer.