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A carver, a witch, a ghost, magic and exchanges
on 10 February 2012
This is compelling, lyrical writing in the voice of a professional that belies that this is a debut effort. The story set in England in the days of witch burnings is of a young, female wood-carver, Kate Svetlana or Plain Kate Carver. We see her from childhood to young adulthood, initially in her small town of Samilae.
Her father was her teacher, and called her "Kate, My Star" until he died from the "witch's fever". Because Kate is plain and has mismatched eyes: one brown and one blue, she is soon called a witch, partially because she is a talented carver. "The man looked up at the faces that were so beautiful they seemed sad, the wings that looked both soft and strong, like the wings of swans that could kill a man with one blow."
The origin of her name, Plain Kate, is humorous and well-described. However, I felt the constant use of "plain" reduced her presence; we didn't need to be constantly reminded of her plainness as if the absence of beauty were a vice (that is how it seemed to me). When Kate is turned out of her father's shop by an indentured apprentice, she goes to live in the bottom drawer of her father's stall, taking her tools and leather apron with her although the new apprentice would have them too, saying her father gave them to her.
Kate adopts a grey male kitten, which she calls Taggle. Soon an albino stranger comes to town named Linay. He is "witch-white" and a "Roamer" (how the book refers to gypsies). "He was thin but strong." Although he is a witch, the town does not cast him out as he grants them wishes and sells trinkets; soon the town's folk are eating out of his hand; and eventually turn Kate out as a witch although she is not one.
The "skara rok" hits - "a year of bad weather, hunger and plague." A sleeping sickness also befalls the town, whereby a person sleeps and never wakes up. Kate's stall is destroyed by an unnamed axe-wielding man, and she is driven out of the town by the fear and taunts that she is a witch and in fear of her life because they could burn her like a witch and then drown her.
Friendless and homeless, Linay finds her and asks her again to give him her shadow in exchange for supplies and "her heart's desire". She has turned him down repeatedly until finally hunger and the fear of her town's folk drive her to accept. To cut off her shadow, Linay cuts himself as "blood draws things" then burns the blood: "fire to set loose the spell" and gives her gifts as an exchange. He gives her a huge haul of fish that stay fresh when others' rot - carving supplies and her heart's desire, freedom from loneliness: in the outcome that Taggle speaks.
Roamers come to sell trained horses. The baker buys a horse from a set of twins and when Kate comes to give the baker, her only friend, the objarka he has asked her to carve, he takes her to the Roamers for Kate to join them. She is accepted by them but placed on notice for 6 months. In the Roamer set are the male twins: Behjet and Stivo, their mother, Daj and Stivo's daughter, Drina, who is younger than Kate and becomes her fast friend over time. Stivo's wife, Lenore, Drina's mother, was a witch and healer, who was burnt and drowned in the city of Lov. This is the crux of the story.
Drina notices that Kate is shadow-less and tries her fledgling magic to bring back Kate's shadow. It is from there that things go from bad to worse with the ghost witch creating death and mayhem, until there is illness in the Roamers' camp for which Kate is blame, and a fire in which she burns but escapes and lives.
Linay has extracted Kate's shadow in order to return to life his dead twin, Lenore, and to avenge the death from the city of Lov, and of every townspeople from Samilae to Lov. When Lenore died, Linay used magic to cut a hole in his shadow where his heart is, and brought Lenore to life as a ghost. But he needed a full shadow and daily blood sacrifices to bring her to life as a human. He eventually draws Kate's blood as well as his own.
The glossary at the back of terminology is useful, but as it is not signposted at front, I didn't realise it was there, and could have used it.
There were many dark elements and miseries in this story, which were not leavened by lightness or humor as I would have expected in a book for YA's. However, as witch-burning is not a pleasant topic, the argument against this is that the book is not expected to sugar-coat the depiction. There were not many qualities in Kate other than her carving prowess and her love for her cat. She was quite loveless and friendless until Drina befriended her. I would have expected a fuller drawing of Kate's character and of some good fortune to befall her, in order to have engaged me more fully. I kept reading to the end as the writing is compelling even though I didn't foresee or get either a true twist or a happy ending. It was a realistic ending but not necessarily a completely satisfying one. The depiction of the magic is original.