Monday, October 3, 2011

Review: Plain Kate by Erin Bow

               "Oh, pretty cover," I thought, so I picked up the book from the YA section of the library and brought it home. The book is Plain Kate by Erin Bow.  I finished it in one sitting.  Well, I had to get up to take the kids somewhere, but I came right back (and I might have been a bit grumpy on the ride).  The character isn't really remarkable--a strong girl whose parents are both dead, who is different from other people and so outcast, and who is plucky and strong.  Sounds like a lot of YA characters, right?   Even though we recognize the character tropes in Katerina (Plain Kate), the plot of this novel is quietly thrilling, the other characters (Roamers, gypsies in our world, and a talking cat) are interesting, and the suspense draws the reader through the book at a fast pace.
               The main story turns around a rusalka, a female water demon who sucks out the souls of people and leaves their bodies to die.  This fabulous Slavic creature isn't a common subject of YA fiction, so I liked her appearance here.   The fog that she brings in her wake sickens the land, and as Kate travels with the Roamers up the river, the fog seems to be chasing them. 
               For Kate, the fog is a gift because it allows her to hide the fact that a witch has tricked her out of her shadow.  But its looming presence throughout the book adds an eerie air to the landscape.
                Besides the likable characters and the darkly suspenseful plot, Erin Bow's beautiful writing make the book truly remarkable.  Here's an early paragraph

It happened like this: the spring swung round into summer, full of heat and flies.  The wheat crop withered. The first frosts came and found food already short. And then a sickness called witch's fever ate through the town.  

It's active, spare, and lovely.  The book is full of passages like this that make you bemoan your fate as a writer who writes too many words.  
               The setting in this book is vaguely Medieval Eastern European.  Dark forests, guilds, unpaved roads, walled towns, horse drawn carriages, and river barges, not to mention suspicious townspeople, the agrarian society, and witch burnings make it seem medieval, but the characters don't feel medieval.  They are imbued with a more modern sensibility and their dress is modern with some otherworldly touches.  And since the violin which is part of the story wasn't invented until the sixteenth century, this seems more likely to be an alternative to our own modern reality than a work set in an historical setting.
               My only complaint about the book, and maybe I just read it too fast and missed it, is that I don't get the cover  It's a lovely cover design, but I don't understand why she's on a roof overlooking a town. 
               I didn't know it when I picked it up, but Plain Kate is up for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award that will be announced tomorrow (10/4/2011).  Good luck to Erin.  (Check out her blog here to see how she fared.)

Update:  Yippee!! Erin Bow won the TD Children's Literature Award.  Way to go, Erin. 

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