I really enjoyed Tithe and some of Holly Black's other work back in high school, so I thought I'd dip back in and check out her more recent work.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Moderate (336 pages in trade paperback)
May 4th, 2010 from Margaret K. McElderry Books
Premise: Cassel Sharpe is the only non-gifted child in a family of magical workers, and he's clinging to the safe normalcy of his school life....until he's found sleepwalking on the roof and forced to go home.
Warnings: mild gore, magical memory/emotional manipulation resulting in trauma, dubiously consensual drunken makeouts
Recommendation: The style of Whte Cat varies from a lot of YA stuff, from the worldbuilding to the character relationships; it may not be an all-time favorite, but it's worth checking out, especially if you like reading about mind games.
What makes this one vivid:
When Cassel Sharpe has to leave the safe life he's built at Wallingford Academy after a night spent sleepwalking, he immediately starts planning to get back in. He was raised on the con and excels at turning a situation to his advantage, even if he's the only one in his family who can't work magic or curses. Being around his family while he tries to get back to school is a pain at best and a dangerous torment at worst, but it's also where he can belong and not pretend to be normal. He gets along well with his crotchety grandfather even though the old man is a death worker who can kill with a touch. His relationships with his brothers Philip and Barron are more tangled with obligation and love and fear; he's always looked up to them, but he's also aware that they have power and he doesn't. Even his mother is complicated; she's an emotion worker who's in jail for making rich men fall in love with her, but she wants the best for her sons and has no problem trying to run their lives from prison. The Sharpe family tends to work for the Zacharov mafia family and the members thus sometimes have to put that obligation above family or caution, but there's an odd sort of affection lurking under the worry and threats. This is a dysfunctional family done right, and all of their conversations swirl with secrets and things left unsaid.
Much of what's left unsaid revolves around Cassel's past: a few years ago, he murdered Lila, the Zacharov daughter who was heir to the entire family business. He loved her in a way that often left him frustrated and confused, but their odd not-quite-friendship worked. Cassel thinks of her awesome, remembering their childhood and his crush and all the things he couldn't say, and even through the lens of memories her character is one of the best things about the book. She's cruel, not in a malicious way but simply because she's focused, and she knows in every moment that she's going to have to prove herself if she's going to rule her family. Sometimes she'll flash with vulnerability, and sometimes she'll bully Cassel into doing what she wants because he likes her and the way she treats him; it's not abusive, he simply gives in to her and seems to see that as the natural order of things instead of resenting it. But then he murdered her one night, and he doesn't remember why, only that he felt a sick glee while he was standing over her body. This has understandably put something of a damper on his later romantic life, but her character arc manages to be very much about her and not just about Cassel's feelings for her, which is normally what happens to beautiful dead girls in this genre.
Working itself is fascinating and leads to altered social mores. Like in Sunshine (which I am cross-my-heart reviewing very soon), people wear odd assortments of charms that may or may not work to ward off magic. One that's been made properly will block magic and shatter when it does, leaving you aware that someone has just tried to work you. The primary guard against being worked, though, is simply wearing gloves. Working requires skin-to-skin contact, and most working learn to channel their powers through their hands and have trouble trying to use anything else. So people wear gloves everywhere, even when eating messy finger food like pizza-- it's a taboo to have them off, and so some of the porn Cassel finds features naked women removing long gloves. It's a brilliant detail that helps anchor working and social paranoia in the framework of how a real society might try to handle magic it couldn't control. The working itself also shines in its simplicity-- workers can affect people and objects, but they receive blowback based on what they do. Luck workers, the most common, receive luck in accordance with what they've given to others. Death workers slowly kill parts of their own flesh. Memory workers lose some of their own memories when they take or hide memories from others, and so on. The system allows for plenty of flexibility and expansion in future volumes, which is perfect for this sort of rough-edged universe.
Discussing the climax and conclusion without spoilers is difficult verging on impossible, since the presence of one of the central characters is a key plot point, but suffice to say that having a book based on cons including a large one in the conclusion is great. Having it include at least two or three the way White Cat does elevates this to a rare treat: Holly Black absolutely knows how to spin a scene.
The red pen:
Although the Sharpes and the memory of Lila are great, the more normal characters in Cassel's world feel dim and ill-defined by comparison. They fill simple predefined roles: Sam is the loyal-but-curious roommates, Daneca is the spunky weird activist girl, and Audrey is the pretty girlfriend who represents equilibrium and a normal life. None of them are memorable enough to last after the last page is turned, and they never really do anything unexpected: in the moments when Cassel isn't sure he can trust his family, they provide rides and other sundry assistance, but they come off more as props for convenience than as real people. It's unfortunate, because Daneca in particular could have been great: she and her mother are advocates for curse-worker rights, trying to prevent them from being identified and oppressed by the government-- this angle has potential and could be great if it's expanded in future volumes, but it was a bit simplistic here. Cassel wants no part of the cause, since being involved could make him a target and Daneca strikes him as a little odd anyway. She may have a greater role to play in later books, but Sam doesn't have much to offer besides convenience and Audrey is almost criminally boring in her awkwardly-timed entrances and exits-- if she's in the room, it's to make a point or advance the plot. She feels utterly interchangeable with any other nice girl except in the one scene when Cassel gets aggressive while they're both drunk; he backs off quickly, but it's a good look at the utter lack of communication in their relationship.
Sam and Daneca's base level of boring only plays into another problem: Cassel excels at cons, but he doesn't know when to stop. That serves as a realistic character flaw when he keeps going just for the hell of it and gets in over his head, but it's just frustrating when he's trying to plan something as basic as rescuing a cat from a shelter that encourages adoption and adds layers of extra steps. If the reader can think of something obvious like "have your accomplice walk in and adopt the cat already" but the scheme just keeps on going without accomplishing anything interesting, it's unnecessary to the plot. On some level it comes off as though that sequence was inserted to make the elegant cross and double-cross and questioning of motivations that defines the climax more plausible as a plan that Cassel could have devised, but the scene still doesn't quite fit and it drags on for far longer than the pagecount would indicate. Watching a magic trick or following a written con with the goal of working out how it's done is tricky: it requires attention to detail, knowledge of all the relevant players, and some guesswork about the trick of it and what's happening next. That makes sequences like this information-dense; when it's done well, as in a gorgeous card-con wherein the protagonist fleeces the whole table (see The Corpse-Rat King for an incident and subversion all at once), it's memorable enough to light up the whole book. When it's anything short of excellent, watching someone play cards or doing something ordinary in a sneaky way is still boring because it's an everyday action.
And sometimes everyday patterns work but don't get the space they need, which is the case with Maura's story arc. Maura is married to Philip, Cassel's older brother, so he sees her while he's staying with Philip and waiting to go back to school. He notices that she forgets about fights with her husband and hears music no one else can hear, as though her mind isn't all there....which is a common sign of being deliberately memory worked. This was set up as an intriguing subplot, but it's addressed and resolved in so few scenes that it packs almost no punch. This wouldn't be such a problem if not for the some of the more rambling scenes about cons or school (a far less interesting element than literally everything happening outside of it)-- novels with tight pacing like this need to use space very well to work, and drifting subplots make that borderline.
The verdict: White Cat isn't going to revolutionize the genre, but it's welcome and different in a way that would make me happy to see it as a movie or miniseries down the road if there's enough interest. Not all of the characters and subpots click home as well as they could, but the material is more than rich enough to make up for that.
Prospects: This is the first in The Curse Workers series. It was followed by Red Glove and Black Heart, which finished the series. There have been rumors of a fourth volume, but Holly Black has been very clear about denying them.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Spirit Thief is probably your best bet for sheer effortless con-man mentality. Eli Monpress sets out to steal a king and throws the entire kingdom into upheaval without a second though, riding the waves of the disruption he's created with ease and flair. Cassel hasn't had as much practice, but they have similar dispositions.