Plain Kate, by Erin Bow, was published in 2010 by Arthur A. Levine.
Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden charms are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade”—a dangerous nickname in a town where witches are hunted and burned in the square. For Kate and her village have fallen on hard times. Kate’s father has died, leaving her alone in the world. And a mysterious fog now covers the countryside, ruining crops and spreading fear of hunger and sickness. The townspeople are looking for someone to blame, and their eyes have fallen on Kate. Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he’ll give Kate the means to escape the town that seems set to burn her, and what’s more, he’ll grant her heart’s wish. It’s a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes that she can’t live shadowless forever—and that Linay’s designs are darker than she ever dreamed.
I struggled to finish Plain Kate. Between the confusing plot with revelations that came too abruptly or too apathetically for me to either make sense of or enjoy them, the overuse (I thought) of similes and other descriptors, and the general style of writing, I almost stopped reading about a third of the way through.
I don’t know if Bow was unconsciously overwriting, or if she really thought that adding descriptors makes everything better, but not only did her similes often not make sense, but her way of writing just somehow sucked all the surprise out of everything. Maybe it wasn’t her writing, but a poorly planned plot or world, but something was up. All of the sentences that announced a big plot point, whether it be an action or a reveal or whatever, started with the word “and” (to be clear, I’m attributing this as a negative because of the repetition, not because of what word she decided to start the sentence with) and it became incredibly wooden after a while. I felt as if Bow was trying to convey all the surprise and tension, etc. of the moment into that one word, “and,” which didn’t work at all.
She also had a tendency to try to make every description sound pretty/poetic, which caused her to not only tell an awful lot, but also led to some really strange comparisons, like the one where she compared a character standing in tall grass to a chess piece (I believe “??????” was my reaction to that one).
Also, I understand that these are all writing issues and that other people might feel differently. For me, though, Bow was using a lot of the things that I find annoying, and that coupled with the poor plot and the poorly developed world just spelled doom from the beginning.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
All great magic requires a great gift. But even small magics asked something, Drina said. And so a witch would put little parts of herself into a spell—hair, say, or tears.
“Blood,” said Taggle. “It’s always blood.”
Plain Kate narrowed her eyes at him. “What do you know about magic?”
“I,” he intoned, wrapping his tail over his paws and sitting up regally, “am a talking cat.”