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

shiver maggie stiefvaterAs long as Grace can remember, there have been wolves in the woods behind her house. Though they attacked her when she was young, she’s not afraid of them; particularly not her wolf, the golden-eyed one who watches her in the winter and whom she misses in the summer.

Sam remembers the girl he saved from the other wolves one winter and has watched every winter since, and avoided every summer – what if she recognized his eyes, which are the same when he’s a wolf and when he’s a young man?

One fall, a boy in Grace’s high school is attacked by wolves and the humans go wolf-hunting. Injured and inexplicably cast back into human form while the rest of the pack is lupine, Sam goes to Grace for help.

Now, romance is not really one of my genres of choice, though I’ve no objection to presence of romance in a plot. Shiver is decidedly in the paranormal romance genre, so it’s not surprising that I found the focus on romance a little excessive. Also the public displays of affection. You know that couple you hate? The ones who are always kissing in public? Snogging in the middle of ordering hot chocolate? Well, they’re that couple. I hate them! Except I couldn’t quite; they were just too damn sweet and too damn real.¹ It also does have a plot aside from their relationship, so between that and the excellent writing I did find it quite enjoyable. It’s not syrupy-sweet, either; too much goes wrong and there’s too much sadness for that. Furthermore, it digs into the reality that sometime people we love do bad things, sometimes out of good intentions or negligence, but sometimes for very bad reasons, and how we react to that. And sometimes people we don’t like become allies.

So if you’ve a strong aversion to romance, it’s probably not for you. But if you’re neutral on romance, it is well-written and thoughtful enough that you may just like it anyway. Besides, it has the added bonus of werewolves.

August 2009²

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¹ Though people’s reaction to their PDAs did strain my willing suspension of disbelief. The woman selling them that hot chocolate? She tells them they’re cute! Ooohs and aaahs over them! Guys, she works at a shop known for amazing chocolates and better hot chocolate. It’s got to be a popular date spot; dates and chocolate go well together. Therefore, she spends many of her evenings watching annoyingly cutesy couples being all smoochy while she’s stuck at work. Assuming it’s not her first day (and she seems to be unsupervised in the store, so I think that’s a fair assumption), she shouldn’t find it cute anymore. Seriously.

² Which is a kinda silly pub date; it’s a winter book. Reading Shiver on air-conditioned subways, there was a moment of disconnect leaving the book and the train and finding that it’s summer.

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Maggie Stiefvater

Mortal Engines Hungry City ChronicleFuturistic steampunk.

We screwed the world up so badly that not only were half the cities destroyed in wars, the rest were being threatened by earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters caused by global warming, too many nuclear bombs disrupting the Earth’s crust, etc. So they put the cities on giant tracks/wheels/rafts. The cities consume a lot of fuel and raw materials, but the Earth’s pretty well tapped out. So the big cities prey on the little cities which prey on the towns. The Earth has settled down since then, but most of the cities are still moving and exist in a fragile stalemate with the Anti-Traction League of cities that stopped moving.

Tom grew up on a rather pseudo-Victorian London, wanting nothing more than to become a member of the Guild of Historians, and just maybe have an adventure and rescue a beautiful girl. Instead, he’s pushed off the city with a very ugly, scarred girl and learns that adventures are rarely so fun as they’re made out to be.

I’d prefer the premise if they just let it be steampunk, but the futuristic/post-apocalyptic setting made it harder for me to suspend disbelief. The adults are, by and large, fairly shallow, and one of them has a final redemptive moment that’s awfully unbelievable. But the setting is nifty, and it actually takes some pretty big risks.

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Mortal Engines

When I’m unwell – mentally, physically, or emotionally – tired, traveling, or spending time in a doctor’s office, I reach for my Tamora Pierce shelf (shelf-and-a-half, actually; she’s written about 30 YA novels) and get out some comfort reading. Tamora Pierce writes fantasy full of magic, honor, friendship, some romance (including some queer ones in her later books), and many, many strong female characters. The writing is at the upper end of middling and the feminism can get a touch didactic, but the characters are sympathetic, the villains are flawed, the plots are dynamic, and the worlds (she has two) and decently fleshed-out and internally consistent. There is enough darkness to make things interesting, but even if there is a cost, the good guys always, in the end, prevail. With the exception of two or three duds, they are endlessly diverting and, as far as I have been able to ascertain, withstand endless rereading.

Melting Stones is her latest offering and, in terms of quality, fits into the middle rank of of her work: it’s not her best, but it kept me entertained on a first reading and I’ve no doubt it will keep me entertained on subsequent readings. Evvy, a fourteen year old stone mage, does not get along with people. This is perfectly understandable, as her parents sold her into slavery at a young age, she spent most of her formative years alone, and a recent war left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Basically, she’s a bitch, though much of it is unintentional; she doesn’t stop to think about the effect her words can have on other people, and sometimes she just doesn’t care. Now Evvy’s guardian – Rosethorn, a plant mage – has been sent to help a small island with mysteriously dying plants, and Evvy is sent along so that she’ll stay out of trouble. Once their, a natural disaster causes plenty of work for a stone mage, and plenty of people for an antisocial, distrustful girl to save, or to abandon.

It’s first person, which is a mixed blessing. It’s almost painful to be in Evvy’s head when she says stupid, hurtful things and barely notices or cares, and her eventual epiphany is dreadfully heavy-handed; it also places Evvy’s traumatic childhood as a steady drone in the background, not often dealt with directly but constantly there shaping her fears, her relationships, and her thoughts. As trauma is wont to do.

But, this being Tamora Pierce, the darkness is a counterpoint to the light; Melting Stones is one more volume of her just-fluffy-enough, escapist fantasy, waiting on my bookshelf till I need it to make me feel better.

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Tamora Pierce