Plain Kate, as Katarina is known, has one eye the colour of river mud and the other the colour of the river; she is a skilled wood carver like her guildsman father, so skilled in fact that some people think she has magic powers and are afraid of her. This is no laughing matter in a town where a woman can be burnt at the stake for witchcraft. When her father dies, Plain Kate must fend for herself at a time of wheat shortages and unrest when more townspeople turn against her in search of a scapegoat. In desperation she sells her shadow to a mysterious stranger and then throws in her lot with the Roamers.
While the world that Kate inhabits is a treacherous one where people can turn against her, she has not only her own strength and courage to see her through the myriad twists and turns of the plot, but also her companion, Taggle the cat – who has been given the ability to speak in part payment for Kate’s shadow. Taggle’s laconic take on events injects a note of humour into a powerful story that is otherwise full of grief, loss and danger.
While Bow’s narrative can be unevenly pitched at times and her plotting convoluted, her narrative voice is both rich and poetic and her sense of place convincing, whether it is the town, the Roamer encampment or the villain’s boat. The cultural reference for these locations is perhaps Russian, certainly East European. Bow is also convincing about Plain Kate as a carver, her relationship with wood and the skill and craft with which she teases out the shapes that she needs. This is a substantial and confident debut from a promising storyteller.