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Plain Kate


Plain Kate

A long time ago lived a girl with a beautiful name, Katerina Svetlana Carver, but everyone called her Plain Kate. Despite her plain nickname and plain appearance, Plain Kate created much beauty in the world. With just a knife, she could carve the right piece of wood into something extraordinary. Taught by her father, the main carver in Samilae, the small market town where the two lived, Plain Kate’s talent exceeded even that of her father. In fact, her work was so good that many of her superstitious neighbors thought perhaps she was a witch. And, where Plain Kate lived, being a witch would get you killed. 

Plain Kate is the compelling heroine in Erin Bow’s debut work of fiction. A blend of folktale and adventure fiction, PLAIN KATE takes readers on a journey of magic, danger, friendship and family, and growing up.

As long as Plain Kate’s father, Piotr is there to care for her and protect her, she is safe from the suspicious eyes of her neighbors. But when Samilae succumbs to the sleeping sickness sweeping the land, and her father dies from it, Plain Kate finds herself alone. She is thrown out of her own home and moves to the market stall she and her father kept. There she ekes out a living selling charms and other carved items. She adopts a cat, Taggle, who becomes her constant and only companion. 

But then a number of things happen that force Plain Kate to leave her village and set off on a quest to save herself and the inhabitants of an entire city. As the sleeping sickness moves across the countryside and into Samilae once again, all eyes are on Plain Kate and accusations of witchcraft are heard. At the same time, a strange man named Linay sets up shop in the market and begins to pay attention to Plain Kate. He at once compliments and threatens her, and she feels uneasy and unsure. When he promises her the means to escape Samilae in exchange for her shadow, she says no. But when it become apparent that she can’t stay in the village any longer, she changes her mind. Shadowless, with just a few belongings and Taggle, Plain Kate joins the Roamers, a nomadic tribe, who may offer her a place among them if she can prove her worth. Plain Kate though is thwarted at every turn as her shadow begins to leave her, and Linay looms frighteningly large, wanting more and more from her. Forced into a situation she would’ve rather avoided, Plain Kate must confront the myths and realities of witchcraft and magic in order to save her own life.

In the end, she is racing against Linay and his wicked magic, trying to find out what he intends to do when he reaches the city of Lov and hoping to stay safe among the Roamers all the while. The drama and the danger mount as the pages turn.

Bow’s narrative is steeped in traditional storytelling. Many of her motifs are familiar, and her setting is somewhere between old Russia and a magical realm. Here shadows can be taken, blood can feed the dead, cats can talk, and ancient ideas about witchcraft and magic live. There is no romance in this folktale-like story, and Plain Kate never changes into Beautiful Kate. But she is smart and strong, daring and kind-hearted throughout. Despite the prejudices she experiences, the perils she faces and the trials she suffers, Plain Kate remains true and loyal. There are moments of heartbreak in PLAIN KATE, and it is not without violence. Bow takes an unflinching stance, but her poetic style nicely balances the darker moments of the book.  

PLAIN KATE is a refreshing, complex, lovely and satisfying novel that explores sacrifice, identity, belonging, and more in a lyrical and enchanting style.    


Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 18, 2011

Plain Kate
by Erin Bow

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2012
  • Genres: Fantasy
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0545166659
  • ISBN-13: 9780545166652