Book Review: Erin Bow’s Plain Kate

Posted April 26, 2014 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Erin Bow’s Plain Kate

Plain Kate

on September 1, 2010 and has 314 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

A magical fantasy for Young Adults that’s mostly sad.

A winner of the YALSA Awards for Best Fiction for Young Adults in 2011 and the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award; on the shortlist for the Book of the Year for Teens at the Canadian Library Association; and, a 2010 nominee for Cybils Awards for Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction.

My Take

This was good with a very sad ending. It ends as it should, and still I cried. You don’t, however, have to worry about the kids having nightmares from this as Bow is more about tell than show with occasional dips into a possibility of a deeper drama and tension, but it mainly skims along. The most telling feature of the story is Taggle, the talking cat. It had me wishing my cats could speak, for I would love to hear what they’re thinking!

As an expanded fairy tale about the rusalka, Bow uses witches, magic, and shadows to rail against bigotry with chases and rescues — just not the types of chases and rescues you might expect. And this is just one of the twists Bow introduces in this story. The sneaky wording on that promise! Linay’s rescue of Kate provides a lovely opportunity to fill us in on the why of Linay needing her shadow and what he intends to do with it. It’s a typical trope which, again, Bow twists for her own purpose. Bow’s introduction of the rusalka was very natural and provides the background on this mythic monster.

The rhymes Bow came up with for Linay to speak were perfect! They sounded like the easy sort of verse someone would come up with on the fly.

There were a number of missed opportunities for drama and tension. I would have liked more emphasis on why Taggle talking was Kate’s greatest wish; how Kate knew what had been making Linay weak, that she had made us feel how Kate was weaker and Linay stronger; the horror of Taggle’s suggestion of the traditional sack and a river; and, all the illness that pops up all over with the resultant deaths. Of course, the lack of depth also means less chance of those nightmares.

A major weak spot was Bow not giving us a reason for why Kate would sell her shadow. Yeah, yeah, Kate needs to get outta Dodge, but to sell her shadow to do it? I don’t buy it.

I can’t blame Linay for wanting to get back at Lov, and it was a twisty trick when Bow slowly revealed how he was going to manipulate this great spell, a reveal that built on the horror of what Linay intended. The scene in which Linay reveals his hopes and fears as he’s arrested. This particular scene and the one following of Taggle’s sacrifice made me cry.

The Story

It is not Kate’s fault that the people of her time believe there is magic in a knife, and Kate’s skill with it is enough to cause them to crook their fingers at her to protect them from her evilness. An ignorant people whom her father disdains as he encourages his daughter’s skill.

It could have been a good life for Kate, but the sickness came, and with it, her father left, leaving Kate vulnerable. Sickness and fear will drive Kate out in fear for her life, fear that is engineered to force Kate out. Fear and anger will force her on and on down the road, desperate to retrieve her shadow.

The Characters

Katerina Svetlana Carver is her father’s daughter, a brilliant carver whose skill is recognized everywhere. Piotr, her father, calls Kate, My Star. Taggle is a gray tom whom Kate rescued as a kitten.

Linay is a wandering vagrant, a weather worker, who comes to town selling his charms, playing his fiddle, and seeking a shadow.

The Roamers
Drina is the daughter of Stivo and Lenore, who has inherited her mother’s magic. Behjet and his twin brother, Stivo, handle the horses. Stivo’s wife and Drina’s mother, Lenore, was burned as a witch. Her loss drove Lenore’s brother mad. Mother Daj is the female matriarch who must still defer to her husband, Wen; Rye Baro is their leader; and, Ciri is the young toddler prince of the Roamers. A vardo is a wagon.

Pan Oksar has a farm where the Roamers camp just outside Toila.

Samilae is the town Kate grew up in. Chuny is the new carver sent to Samilae. Vera, a poor charcoal burner, was the first. Big Jan and Old Boyar are fishermen. Niki the Baker is as much of a friend as he can be. Skara rok is the illness known as the witch’s fever. Objarka are wooden charms that protect their wearer.

The Cover and Title

The cover looks like a goldleafed landscape of roofs and steeples and antennae as Plain Kate and Taggle balance along a rooftop.

The title is the protagonist, Plain Kate is how her father named her to the new butcher, who turned it into a nickname.