Plain Kate, by Erin Bow

When it comes to YA literature, the current trend towards dystopian stories boasting loads of hardcore violence is so widespread it's actually gotten boring—no matter how creative the backstory, it's hard to be shocked by yet another novel centered around some far-fetched excuse for futuristic kids to kill one another. This is why I found myself approving of Erin Bow's novel Plain Kate—sure, it was dark and sad and creepy (all things I generally avoid), but at least it was original.

After the death of her father, Katerina Svetlana (unaffectionately nicknamed “Plain Kate”) survives by carving intricate wooden charms to sell in the local marketplace. Unfortunately, Kate's uncanny talent with wood makes her a constant object of suspicion amongst her neighbors, who prefer to deal with odd, socially isolated females by periodically blaming one for everything and burning her as a witch in the village square. When the villagers learn of a mysterious illness spreading across the countryside, Kate's position becomes even more precarious, and eventually she is forced to make a terrible bargain: she trades her shadow to an actual witch for a safe way to leave her village, and the granting of the “secret wish of her heart”.

I'm always freaked out by witch-burning stories, and Bow does a superb job of imbuing Kate's adventures with a constant sense of danger. No matter where she goes, Kate risks someone noticing her mangled shadow, and even the relatively kind characters in this story are terrifyingly quick to turn on her. Plain Kate is periodically brightened up by the delightfully practical and self-absorbed observations of Kate's talking cat (her “secret wish” turned out to be someone to talk to, so the witch worked his mojo on her cat), but the rest of the story is unrelentingly bleak. Thankfully, it's also beautifully written, genuinely scary, and absolutely nothing like The Hunger Games, and that's good enough for me.

Review based on publisher-provided copy.
Posted by: Julianka


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