Plain Kate, by Erin Bow
Summary: Plain Kate is the daughter of a wood carver, and a talented carver herself. She and her father are happy and content until failing crops and terrible sickness sweep through their small town. When Kate’s father falls to the sickness, Kate is forced out of her home and into a struggle for survival. An encounter with a witch leads Kate reluctantly into an adventure that involves not only a fight for her own future, but the future of thousands.
Review: This is great middle grade/young adult fantasy novel, with a heroine that is one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve read in a long time. Kate’s just trying to survive the best she knows how, and you just feel so bad for her. Even when she’s making a very questionable decision, you know that she’s just doing it because she doesn’t see any other way. And I love how throughout the book Kate digs deep to find strength and resilience that you know she didn’t think she had. She just faces life and does what needs to be done.
The book has the feel of a kind of fantasy/folk tale blend, and the world has a Russian feel to it, which I found very refreshing and unique. But it’s the story and characters that are the central focus of this book. One thing that really stands out about this story is that it’s not a strict black and white/good versus evil story. Yes, there is that element, the classic “hero saves the day, defying all odds;” but the situations and characters and choices are complicated and conflicting and gray. But at the end of the day, hope beats despair.