White Cat by Holly Black
Author: Holly Black
Series: The Curse Workers #1
Release Date: May 4, 2010
Dates Read: May 7-June 5, 2012
He hasn’t got the magic touch, so he’s an outsider, the straight kid in a crooked family. You just have to ignore one small detail — he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago.
Ever since, Cassel has carefully built up a façade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his façade starts crumbling when he starts sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat that wants to tell him something. He’s noticing other disturbing things, too, including the strange behavior of his two brothers. They are keeping secrets from him, caught up in a mysterious plot. As Cassel begins to suspect he’s part of a huge con game, he also wonders what really happened to Lila. Could she still be alive? To find that out, Cassel will have to out-con the conmen.
I’m not really sure why it took me so long to pick up this book. I have long been a fan of Holly Black, whose Tithe was my first introduction into urban fantasy and dark fantasy. Perhaps it was because I felt like my tastes in reading had matured past the style presented in those novels. (Never to fear, if this is an obstacle for you, White Cat is a much more mature, thought-provoking piece.) I guess it’s possible that I just wasn’t sure about the whole con artist aspect of the story. However, after I made it through the light read All These Things I’ve Done, I decided I was not actually opposed to novels about families with histories deeply entrenched in crime. And this book definitely falls into that category.
Cassel Sharpe has grown up in a family where stealing, lying, conning, working are commonplace. However, his family doesn’t consist of just petty criminals. They have magic on their side. At the slightest, miniscule touch of a bare hand, they have the power to change you. His mother can change emotions. She never hesitated to use her power to get what she wanted, whether from an unwitting victim or from her children. Others can change memories, luck, dreams. His grandfather can even kill. Oh, and about that whole killing thing? Well, no one likes to talk about it, but it turns out Cassel killed his best friend and love, Lila, three years ago. He can’t remember much, but his brothers tell him they found him standing over her, covered in blood and smiling. This little incident, along with the fact that he’s the only non-worker in the family, has left Cassel on the fringes. As an outsider, he was just doing his best to get by, taking bets and money from fellow students at Wallingford. Until the sleepwalking started. When his world is full of liars and cheats, secrets and cover-ups, it’s not easy for Cassel to unravel what’s really going on. But he has to, because there are just too many things that don’t add up.
White Cat is a paranormal urban fantasy novel, but it’s different than things I’ve read before. Holly Black does a great job creating memorable characters and building a world around Cassel that’s ultimately full of deception he struggles to unravel. While he may seem a little slow on the uptake at times, the novel is about Cassel coming to terms with the fact that he may not be able to trust anyone in his family. He may not even be able to trust his own memories. And when memories are such a huge foundation for who you are, what do you do when you can’t trust who you thought you were?
The novel is engaging from start to finish. The alternate universe America where curse workers exist is an intriguing one. Working is illegal, but those who wish to use their gifts for good, such as granting good luck at weddings, are challenging this notion. While it is a small part of the novel, it presents an interesting question — can people be trusted to hold so much power and not use it to further their own ends at the expense of others? Of course, the power does come with some price. Black introduces “blowback” as a mechanism of a power check. Cassel’s mother suffers from terrible mood swings. His grandfather has a dead hand to remind him of his debts. The concepts presented here are quite fascinating. The plot is thrilling and entertaining as well. As the threads around Cassel’s mysteries unravel, more complications arise to take their place. Even the end–just when it seemed like things were wrapping up so nicely–was a satisfying kick to the gut.
I’d recommend White Cat to fans of young adult urban fantasy looking for something different from the normal deluge of vampires and werewolves. Black’s style and talent for story creation are not to be discounted here.