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!

Plain Kate ~ Erin Bow


Cabinet of WondersPetras father, Mikal Kronos, has been blinded. A magically gifted metalworker, he was summoned to Prague to build the Bohemian ruler a clock – a beautiful clock to impress the populace and control the weather. When all that was left was the mechanism to control the weather, the Prince ordered Mikal’s eyes gouged out and magically preserved, able to be worn by the Prince himself; because the Prince wanted to finish the clock himself, because he wanted to see the world as Mikal does, because he doesn’t want Mikal to make anything that beautiful for anyone else. So, naturally, Petra must go off to Prague to retrieve her father’s eyes. Of course, she promptly has her pocket picked by a Gypsy, who, of course, is a noble thief and, of course, promptly befriends her and helps her in her task. Because we’ve totally never seen that before.

It’s a straightforward, well-written story with moments of fantastic imagination – the tin animals Petra’s farther creates, the Worry Vials her best friend’s father creates (like worry dolls, only they actually absorb your worries), a peculiar skin condition, and other cleverness – but while the main characters have distinct, fleshed-out personalities, their motivations are not fleshed-out and the supporting characters have little in the way of either. Making John Dee rather bland and predictable is a bit of an achievement; unfortunately, it’s not an achievement to celebrate. Still, the thread of inventiveness woven through the book is much appreciated.

The Cabinet of Wonders ~