When I am in the mood for fantasy, nothing else will suffice. Kind of like when you want chocolate and some poor misguided soul offers you Sour Patch Kids. Not the same thing at all. Grey, blustery November puts me in the mood for well-written, heartbreaking fantasy. Enter Erin Bow.
I knew I would enjoy Erin Bow’s debut novel Plain Kate based on the reviews at Shelf Elf and Bookshelves of Doom. Rarely do these bloggers steer me in the wrong direction. In fact, the only reason I got to reading this gem of a book so late was because I was waiting for the right mood to strike me. I am, if nothing else, someone who picks books based on mood. This week I was totally in the mood.
Kate, called Plain Kate, is the only daughter of a wood carver who has died and left her in a precarious position in the world. She is too young and too poor to become THE carver in her village, despite her exceptional talent with wood. So she makes a deal with a tall, pale stranger named Linay. Linay is a witch, but as he tells Kate, all magic requires an exchange of gifts. Therefore, in return for her shadow, Linay leaves Kate with her heart’s desire: a friend to share her troubles and tribulations with. How surprising that this friend turns out to be her cat, Taggle, who has been given the gift of speech.*
For those of you who are smiling and thinking, “Aww, talking animals? Adorable!” stop right there. True, in general the presence of a talking animal often signifies a sweet or clever story. This is not a sweet story. It is not a cute story. It is a moving and at times brutal tale of sacrifice and responsibility. Bow’s spare yet poetic writing is the perfect fit for her story, which is timeless and haunting, with more than a few overtones of Russian folklore. It has the feel of a classic, meaning it could have been written fifty years ago or fifty years from now and the reader (from any time period) would be equally satisified.
Plain Kate is a book lovers book, not just because it is a memorable and satisfying read, but because something about the language and the story feels like an homage to the whole idea of “book”. This is the kind of exhilarating storytelling that can only be appreciated in book form. Just the thought of reading this on an electronic tablet of some sort makes me shudder. Erin Bow writes with all five senses, and the result is visceral. Plain Kate is all about physical experience, the loveliness of objects, and such an earthy story simply cannot be done justice in electronic form.
Rant over. Please go read this book. Or better yet, find someone to read it to you. Lovers of classic fantasy, beautiful language, and poignant storytelling will fall head over heels for Kate. I know I did.
Plain Kate is available in hard cover from Scholastic.
*SPOILER: I am always wary of books that feature beloved pets, given that this pet inevitably dies or is lost and my poor sentimental self is distraught(Sounder, Love That Dog, Ballad of West Tenth Street, even His Dark Materials, though I am sure Phillip Pullman would not appreciate me lumping daemons in with pets). I have to say that Plain Kate fits in this category.I am not ashamed to say that on more than one occasion I was teary eyed over Taggle, who says such perfectly cat-ish things like “I am fond of you,” and “you may stroke me now.” Consider yourself warned.