Plain Kate, by Erin Bow (Scholastic, 2010, young adult, 311 pages in arc form)
Plain Kate got her nickname when she was just a baby, and as she grew older, nothing happened to her that would contradict it. Despite being plain in the eyes of the world, she knows that she is precious to her father, and so, despite having lost her mother to childbirth, Kate is happy enough, learning how to carve wood under her father's tutelage, and soon becomes an artist in her own right. But when her father dies before she has come of age, there is no one left who cares all that much about her. Then sickness and crop failure come to her small town, and rumors of witchcraft begin to swirl around.
A stranger has come to down, a pale man named Linay who offers to buy Kate's shadow in return for granting the wish of her heart. When she refuses his offer, he uses his magic to set her up as a witch in the eyes of the townsfolk. Soon she must flee, or be burned as a witch, and Linay's offer seems to be her only way out...So Kate sells her shadow.
In exchange, her beloved cat, Taggle, begins to talk to her--at last she is no longer alone. Her path away from the village leads to the Roamers, travelling people who agree to let her travel with them. Her hope is that they will fully accept her, before her shadow leaves her entirely, and for a brief time, she thinks she might have found a family.
Then things go awry. A new spectre of death has emerged, born on white mist and sending its victims into a sleep from which they never wake. More rumours of witchcraft abound, and even the Roamers fall prey to fear and suspicion. And Kate, her shadow gone, is an obvious target.
Her only hope to save herself is to get her shadow back. But Linay has plans for it--terrible plans, involving a magic darker than any Kate had ever heard of. And his reasons stretch back to a dark and horrible grief of his own.
"What do you want, Linay?" It was the first time she had said his name. It tasted powerful."
"The dead, you know, are hungry. Those that do not rest. They are hungry all the time and cannot even eat grass." He was halfway to singing again. He seemed to stop himself. "The have mouths the size of needles' eyes and stomachs the size of mountains. It is a terrible fate." (page 194)
One of the hungry dead, a ruskala, is coming ever closer....and it becomes all to clear to Kate that it is not just she, herself, who needs to be saved from Linay's magic. But what can a girl with no shadow, who only skill is her artistry with wood, and her talking cat do to stop him?
I thought, from the cover illustration, that this would be a lighthearted adventure story about a girl and her cat. It is, indeed, about a girl and a cat, but is much darker and more lyrical than I had anticipated. Gently and carefully Bow builds her dramatic tension, placing the pieces into place that lead inexorably to the horror that is to come. It is a gripping journey--even in building up the central story, she doesn't pull her punches. People are badly hurt, betrayed, and many die. (I cried).
Bow departs from the expected path of a YA fantasy in that Kate's story is complete without any romantic interest. Loneliness is a cornerstone of Kate's character, and Bow, commendably, stays true to this--there was no place in this particular story for romantic love. In part because of this, Kate is a beautifully believable character, whose determination and courage won my heart.
Despite its darkness, Plain Kate isn't a bleak book. The clarity and color of Bow's world building make the story sing. But what truly saves the book from the weight of its sad story is Taggle, the cat. He is the epitome of catness, adding great humor and warmth, and I loved him. He's happy to use his new found skill of speech to let Kate know just where to pet him, and heroic as all get out in his own right.
Here are other reviews, at Book Aunt, 21 Pages, and Let the Words Flow.
(disclaimer: arc received at ALA)