White Cat (2010), the first book in Holly Black‘s The Curse Workers series, focuses on Cassel, a teenage boy born into a family of workers. Working magic is illegal, which means anyone born with the gift — his entire family — either works for the mob or as a con artist. Except Cassel, that is, because Cassel doesn’t have a gift. What he does have is strange dreams that make him sleepwalk, and end up in the strangest places, like on top of the dorms at his boarding school. If only he could figure out what was causing these dreams, he knows he would be okay. But what’s causing the dreams is even scarier than what is in them.
White Cat is quintessential Holly Black. You have intriguing characters, razor sharp dialog, dark and moody settings, and a unique system of magic. In this world, the system of magic is characterized by blowback. There are different schools of magic: deathwork kills people, emotionwork can make people fall madly in love or enraged, memory workers can remove or manipulate people’s memories. Each school of magic has its own form of blowback — deathworkers have one of their body parts die each time they kill someone, emotion workers become mentally unstable, memory workers lose their own memories, developing a condition remarkably similar to Alzheimer’s disease. The other limitation is that magic can only be worked by laying your hand on someone’s skin, and that peculiarity has created a society where gloves are requisite, and a bare hand is fetishized.
The magic system is the most unique thing about White Cat. While the characters and setting are all well done, the plot is standard teen-angst with a healthy helping of family dysfunction on the side. Some of the plot devices were easy to predict, which led to a lessening of dramatic tension when the big surprises were revealed. While it may not be the most original book, the writing is still exceptionally well done, and I stayed up late one night to finish the story. The end is heartbreaking to read, while completely in keeping with the emotional dynamics set up by the characters through the book.
Holly Black is an incredibly talented writer. Her old fans will find much to love in this first installment in The Curse Workers series, and will find this an engaging setting for a new series of teen fantasy novels. Black can be confident that she will pick up new fans with this book as well, and I look forward to seeing what dilemmas Cassel will face as the story progresses.
White Cat, by Holly Black, is the story of Cassell, a boy with a peculiar name and an even stranger family. Everyone in Cassell’s family is a curse worker. That is, they can perform magic on another person via skin-to-skin contact. Cursework comes in a variety of forms such as: Cassell’s mother is an emotion worker who can make people feel anything she wants them to, his grandfather is a death worker who can kill with a touch, some can manipulate luck, and others can change another person’s memory. Cursework, given its nature, is strictly prohibited — so curse workers most often work for the organized criminal underground. Cassell is the exception in his family as he is the only one who isn’t a curse worker, but a normal kid.
Cassell’s family is a complicated and dynamic entity that fluctuates throughout the story. For the majority of the time the reader follows Cassell, a somewhat mopey teen who can’t decide whether he resents his lack of powers or not. We see his family dynamic through his eyes, and learn whose loyalties are strongest and who historically don’t get along. I enjoyed the family dynamics as it provided another layer of complexity to what could have been a simple story. The questions of loyalties, values, curses, betrayals, who-told-whom-whats, kept both me and Cassell on our toes.
Something I absolutely loved about White Cat was the thoughtfulness with which Black created the world. In a world where skin to skin contact could spell your doom, what do you do to protect yourself? And, on a grander scale, how does society cope with and work around normal looking people having the ability to manipulate magic via physical contact? Black expertly addressed these questions by not only showing us a society in which gloves are mandatory and bare hands are scandalous, but showing a culture where curses are real.
Beyond the wearing of gloves, Black takes time to talk about the role of curse workers as both outlaws and members of society. She works in details like how cursework is illegal in every way, yet no one would be caught without a luck worker at their wedding. Talismans and pendants are real and legitimate ways to protect oneself against cursework, and there is a whole industry around fabricating them. Curse workers are stigmatised and discriminated against and there is an ongoing debate about making curse workers be identifiable on sight. I thoroughly enjoyed the integration of key cultural truths about the world Black has created for THE CURSE WORKERS. The attention to both characters and society was refreshing and intriguing and made me want to explore the world and its issues more.
Black does an excellent job with both cultural setting and characters, but I did find some factors became more hindrance than help. We meet Cassell as he is attending boarding school. There, he has few friends and is running a betting ring on everything from which teachers will end up together to who will kill the infamous mouse that plagues the school. Although it is enjoyable in its own right, I found much of Cassell’s time at the boarding school to be entirely pointless to the story at large. It is neither a refuge nor a real hiding place, and for the entirety of the book his school troubles pale in comparison to the main plot. Cassell drifts from place to place doing half of something before ending up somewhere else and as such the settings he travels through become less and less important and meaningful.
Holly Black has created a set of characters who, even in tertiary roles, have a sense of depth and importance to the story. She has also created a modern world in which magic exists and is feared in a very realistic way. Though the settings to Cassell’s antics often seem little more than backdrops, the story is compelling and White Cat finds its way to a satisfying, if somewhat heartbreaking, end. I look forward to reading the next installment in THE CURSE WORKERS series.
Holly Black’s fantasy novel White Cat is the first in a contemporary fantasy series called THE CURSE WORKERS. I’m surprised that I’m giving such a low rating to this popular, award-winning author, and Amazon has a ton of 5-star reviews, so consider that. While I was not enthusiastic about this story, I think Black’s mid-teen and young adult fans may find a lot to enjoy here.
My Saga Press paperback was published in 2015, although it looks like there was an earlier British edition.
Cassel Sharpe wakes up from a nightmare that a white cat has bitten out his tongue (how symbolic), to find himself on the roof of the dorm of his exclusive prep school. Faced with this crisis — once he is safely recovered, the school suspends him until he returns with a doctor’s note — Cassel leaps to what is, for him the obvious conclusion. He has been cursed.
In Cassel’s world, there is magic, and people who work magic. All magical workers are called “curse workers,” even the ones who heal or provide good luck, and magical work is largely illegal. As is often the case, criminalizing an entire class of people makes them vulnerable to criminals, or drives them to become criminals themselves. Magic “curses” are carried out through skin-to-skin contact, so nearly everyone in this world wears gloves to demonstrate their good intentions.
For Cassel, home is worse than school. The Sharpe family is a group of magical grifters who work for a mob-like magical crime family called the Zarachovs. Cassel’s father is dead, his mother is in jail for using emotional magic to scam a millionaire, and his brothers are strange and unpleasant. Cassel is the only non-magic worker in the family, although he is a natural con man. His only real ally is his grandfather, a retired death worker. Cassel struggles with the sleepwalking, which reveals to the reader a darker secret. He remembers standing over the corpse of his friend Lila Zacharovna. He has no memory of how or why he killed her, but he knows he did. And now, with his mother appealing his conviction, Cassel’s dreams and his sleepwalking, Cassel must uncover secrets that put him in even more danger.
I like Black’s magical system, particularly the concept of “blowback,” the consequences of magic use. Cassel’s grandfather has necrotic fingers because every time he cursed someone to death, some of his own tissue died. It’s probable, although not stated explicitly, that Cassel’s mother is completely unstable because that’s the blowback of manipulating emotions. “Luck” workers or healers experience a sense of well-being after casting a spell. This is nicely worked out and it’s a large part of White Cat’s plot.
While I understand that the criminalization of magic workers is part of the overarching story and meant to stir discussion about discrimination, I’m tired of crime families as the basis for contemporary fantasy. I didn’t like anyone in the Sharpe clan and I never completely believed that such a selfish, manipulative family managed to raise a son with even a rudimentary moral compass. This seems unlikely and a little too convenient as the story progressed. Cassel makes a startling discovery, about halfway through the book, that seemed obvious from earlier chapters. It is possible that the story means for the reader to see it before Cassel does (because of some magical influences), but instead I was impatient with usually-smart Cassel for being so dense.
Cassel mostly emerges as smart and resourceful (if whiny) and his two mundane friends from school, Sam and Daneca, are convincing teens, provide good comic relief, and believably model different behavior for Cassel. If Sam and Daneca continue to be Cassel’s sidekicks in the series, I have some hopes for it.
I enjoyed the climactic scene in a restaurant bathroom but it went on longer than needed, and the dialogue undercut the suspense and excitement. Black does wrap up the story without making everyone live happily ever after; there’s plenty left to work with for Book Two, Red Gloves, which was released in October 2015. White Cat has a lot to offer, but in the end it just wasn’t for me.
Interesting to see people stigmatized for something they can really do, instead of for skin color, culture, or religion. Some of Black’s recent work hasn’t done it for me, but this sounds encouraging!
I’ll have to check this one out–thanks, Skye!