When Plain Kate’s father dies of a fever, she isn’t left with much: a few clothes, some tools her father gave her, the woodcarving he taught her, and some loyalty from the townspeople. These are enough for a few years; she survives by carving objarka, charms that the villagers feel are too important to leave in the hands of the guild woodcarver, significantly less skilled than Plain Kate. Then an albino tinker appears, offering to purchase Kate’s shadow in exchange for her deepest wish, and when she refuses, strange things start happening—strange things that have the villagers muttering about witchcraft and Kate. Knowing she’ll likely be killed if she stays, Plain Kate takes the tinker’s offer: her shadow in exchange for ample traveling supplies. Well equipped and now accompanied by a talking cat, she leaves to find a new place in the world.

Plain Kate is well-written and absorbing; within a page or two, I could feel myself sinking into the world with a contented sigh. Kate is an appealing but not overly-idealized heroine, and a smattering of Eastern European and Roma (gypsy) folklore and tradition gives the book shape. Mostly, though, it’s about human nature: suspicion, desperation, family loyalty, mob mentality. To an adult reader, it’s a mite predictable, but not in particularly frustrating way; it didn’t feel like Kate was being daft by not putting things together, it just felt like the reader had a longer view of the situation. Kate had immediate concerns to distract her; the reader is looking for the big picture. The only significant flaw is the ending; it feels a bit too neat, and there are enough sudden changes to make the reader feel a bit jerked-around. Still, it’s a beautiful, gripping novel. And I didn’t even mind the talking cat!

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Plain Kate ~ Erin Bow

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Curse Dark as GoldThe short version of the summary: Rumpelstiltskin in eighteenth century, early Industrial Revolution England. The medium-length version of the summary: Charlotte and her younger sister Rosie are struggling to keep their family’s mill running and pay of the debts he ran up before he died, and a series of accidents only makes it worse. Sensible Charlotte refuses to listen to the villager’s talk of a curse, even through the mill has a history of accidents and none of the millers has had a son live to inherit the mill.

It’s exceedingly well-written and -characterized. In particular, Charlotte’s romantic relationship is believable, though odd for a modern reader; the pace of courtship is vastly different than what we’re accustomed to, and I think that was more blatant in this than in much historical fiction. Also, refreshingly, the romance is imperfect; they disagree, they shut each other out, they do the wrong thing when trying to do the right thing. They’re human, and we see where they’re coming from and can understand why they make the mistakes they do.

And the villains? Unclear of motivation at the start, bits and pieces fall together until, by the end, they are just as real as the heroine. The characters are also not divided neatly into hero and villain; there are people who are pretty nasty but do no particular harm, and others who are desperate or confused more than malicious, yet manage to do significant harm.

The fantasy/fairy tale elements are woven deftly into the mundane that defines so much of Charlotte’s world. The portrayal of village life in particular, with its belief in curses and hex-marks living quietly alongside the church, brings everything together such that the historical fantasy feels simple and almost self-evident.

I read a copy checked out from the New York Public Library.

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A Curse Dark as Gold ~ Elizabeth C. Bunce