Judging entirely from the cover art, I picked up Plain Kate expecting a charming light British fantasy. That's what the cover suggested to me -- the girl on the cover looks like someone who is having a gently meandering adventure, the sort one could have on the way home from school, even. I expected to enjoy it, but I had no hint that there'd be anything memorable about it.
And that, my dears, is why I need to stop attempting to make predictions about books based solely on their covers. (It sounds obvious and simple, but it really is difficult NOT to do it.)
I wasn't expecting this story to Stand Out as something very different from most anything I've read in quite some time: I was wrong.
I wasn't expecting to be so enchanted by the storyline, world and characters that I'd be late to work because of it: I was wrong.
I wasn't expecting to find the plotting and characterization so constantly surprising that I'd be wondering How Things Would Work Out right up until the last page: I was wrong.
I wasn't expecting to get so emotionally invested in the characters that I'd burst into tears while recounting the plot to a co-worker an entire day later: I was wrong.
For that matter, I wasn't expecting, while writing about Plain Kate weeks after first reading it, to have my eyes well up all over again: I was wrong.
Even the first line:
A long time ago, in a market town by a looping river, there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate.
didn't suggest any of the above to me -- instead, it suggested that Plain Kate would be a comfortable sort of olde fashionedy story about an orphan finding her place in the world: In that, too, I was wrong.
Erin Bow has achieved the timeless feel of a classic, but it isn't a comfortable, snuggly sort of story. The dangers faced are too dark, the sacrifices too great and the betrayals too huge for this to be a comfortable sort of story, and its told in such a way that you can see, through Kate and Taggle, what is truly right or wrong in each given situation, but you can also see -- and understand -- the motivations behind the choices the characters actually make.
I don't want to say much more about it, because, like the best books, it's a journey best left to the author and the characters, but the setting has an Eastern European feel, and the book features the best crotchety/selfish sidekick character since Calcifer. I'm sure you realize that I would not say that lightly.
Highly, seriously recommended to readers looking for A Good Book.
Book source: Review copy from the publisher.