I’ve remarked before that Kate is a popular name for Girls Underground – you’ll find her in The Perilous Gard, The Hollow Kingdom, and The Ancient One, among others. It’s also my name! (Well, my middle name, which I use most often these days – my first name being the same as the protagonist in Labyrinth.) Now, finally, a book titled with the name itself: Plain Kate by Erin Bow.
Kate is orphaned when her woodcarver father dies in a plague, and she can’t support herself very long on her own carving skills when the villagers suspect she’s a witch and may burn her at any time. Enter the adversary: an albino stranger named Linay, who really is a witch. He comes to town peddling wishes, and offers her whatever she wants in exchange for her shadow. Although she doesn’t know the true price of this deal, Kate agrees.
Linay gives her the ability to escape the village with a band of gypsies. He also grants her cat the power of speech, and the cat becomes Kate’s dearest companion. (The writing of the cat’s words throughout is excellent and at times extremely funny; it’s just how a cat would talk if it could!) Kate also befriends Drina, a young gypsy girl who has a little inherited magic of her own and wants to help Kate – but when Drina is attacked, the gypsies turn on Kate and cast her out, and she finds shelter with, of all people, Linay.
Kate spends many hazy days with her adversary on a river barge. Each night he feeds her blood to the dead spirit he is courting (the one he hopes to resurrect with Kate’s shadow), each night she weakens and forgets herself a little more. She learns that Linay plans a horrifying revenge on the town that murdered his sister, which will involve sacrificing himself. Which means that eventually Kate is in the awkward position of trying to rescue her own adversary, if only to prevent the disaster his death with bring.
In the end, it is Kate who must make a dreadful sacrifice in order to save the town and herself. But though she loses much, she gains a chance at a real life.