Written by: Holly Brook
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Margaret K McElderry Books
May 2010, $17.99
Genre: Young Adult/Urban Fantasy
Cassel comes from a family of curse workers — people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they're all mobsters, or con artists. Except for Cassel. 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.
Holly Black has created a gripping tale of mobsters and dark magic where a single touch can bring love — or death — and your dreams might be more real than your memories.
I love books I can relate to. Sometimes it is a character, a plot point, a way of speaking or acting, or even a setting. I first discovered Holly Black when a friend gave me Tithe for my birthday. I loved it because it was set in New Jersey and South Jersey is where I graduated high school many moons ago. The Pine Barrens was where I spent my teenage years and frequent visits to the Popcorn Zoo down the road made my summers enjoyable. So I will always have a fondness for Holly Black because of where her Modern Faerie Tale series took place. Not only was it a great series but I could imagine her world full of A&Ps and Wawas just with some fey mixed in. It made the stories that more real and of course my imagination was a very happy camper.
I had been eyeing White Cat for a while now after YA Book Club is over and we browse the shelves for our next pick. It was my turn again to pick and I prayed it would be better than Eyes Like Stars which was just bad. The cover was meh, but I liked the back blurb. Like Leverage but with Hands of Power. I think I was drawn to it because there weren’t your average urban fantasy staples. There are no werewolves, vampires, or zombies. There is magic, in a sense, but a whole new alternative history to go with it.
Holly Black colors a world where a small portion of the population is a bit special. They are gifted with certain abilities that are transferred by touch. Some can give you luck or take it away, others involve emotions, physical which involves pain or healing, dreams, memory, death and the most rare of all transmutation. While Curse Work is banned in the USA, curse workers are mostly involved within the Mafia as muscle, as con artists, etc. After all when who you are is essentially illegal it is not hard to imagine that you go underground and begin to hang with everything else that no one talks about but still exists. Outfits like the Mafia have turned curse workers into something to be feared and why wouldn’t you be when a single brush of a finger could turn your heart into stone or make you forget your life. There are protections such as gloves, gloves, gloves or charms and amulets made of stone that become null once you have been worked.
Cassel Sharpe grew up in this world. He’s a con artist like the rest of his family, a bookie by trade at his posh boarding school. But Cass isn’t like the rest of the family. He isn’t a curse worker. But he does have secrets of his own, like the fact that he killed his best friend when he was fourteen and that not only did his family cover up the murder but that she was the daughter of the head of the Zacharov family. When Cassel wakes up from a nearly suicidal bout of sleepwalking he is sent home, but he can’t get a dream out of his head, one where he was chasing a white cat but said cat may want to kill him or tell him something important. Life at home is interesting. His mom is still in jail for having worked an influential person, his father is dead, his grandfather seems a bit crazy and his two brothers are acting odd around him. Something isn’t right. As Cassel’s world begins to both crumble and be far more illuminated than he ever thought, Cass discovers that sometimes the worst con of all is the one that is being played on you.
Things I loved: As always, spoilers ahead so be wary if you have not yet read the book. One thing I really like about Holly Black is I think that she times and effort into thinking about the world she creates and how things work in that world. For example though magic is called curse work there are rules to it. Not only is magic uncommon, but it has its price when used. Think you can just make someone forget their life without a bit of blowback forcing you into early Alzheimer’s? There are also ways to tell whether you will be a curse worker, something scientific in fact and once you are known to be a worker, the fact that you have to register. The charms, which may give some protection, only work once and specific charms only work against specific curses. Once you’ve been worked, they break and you are off to find another charm. I like all of these because it keeps her world balanced. So even if you do have the power to transform anything and anyone, it is not without some pretty severe consequences.
But I absolutely love the idea that a touch could be so dangerous. And how that simple fact affects your world as well. I am a toucher. When I talk to someone I usually touch them. For me it forms a connection, the I’m talking to you’ not ‘At you’ sort of thing. Plus it calms me. Touch is taboo in this world. It has to be when a simple brush of someone’s fingertips could make you fall in love or kill you. Imagine how deadly an assassin could be by just brushing a stranger in a crowded street. Scary. Awesome.
Holly Black does well with a male protagonist and his wife. Sometimes it is glaringly obvious when a writer tries to write a character of the opposite sex. They do or say things that aren’t quite right. I never felt that way with Cassel or even his brothers. In fact I loved the relationship dynamics between Cass and both his brothers and the rest of his family. Family can be quite complicated and like all relationships whether family or otherwise there is definitely some manipulations that occur. How twisted those manipulations may be remains to be seen. But back to Cass. I loved that Cass is a flawed character. After all, he is a con man. But at the core he is a good person and one that you root for in the end. As a teen he makes mistakes. He can be selfish, says and does things without thinking and of course he tries to do everything himself without the aid of others even if it is dangerous. That makes him human and all the more real.
Of course anyone who is into fairytales, legends, folklore and such will see the White Cat connections, but I love how Holly Black made it her own. I also really loved some of the small little things in the book that were just memorable: a house that was obviously that of a hoarder, Sam’s biodiesel hearse (may I have this please?), Cassel’s thoughts sometimes, etc. Also I kind of want to hug Barron a lot. Once you’ve read it, you’ll understand. Plus Cass’s grandfather is just cool. Hitman by night, cranky old grandpa who makes you mow the lawn and take out the trash when you spend summers with him by day.
Things I didn't love so much: I did have a few problems with this book, but they are minor enough that it didn’t make me obsess or dislike the book. I was disappointed in how clueless Cass was because as a reader I think we see the plot twists coming a mile away. In fact the moment you bring up transmutation, I knew. But then I remember that I have not been manipulated like Cass has. We rely so much on our memories to tell us how the world works, on our relationships, on our lives as a whole. However, if someone tampered with those precious things are you really to blame to not see things the way the rest of the world may see it. Especially when it comes from family, the one place where you should feel absolutely safe? I think I let these little things slide because the story and Cassel’s character as a whole is so engaging that you scoff and move on. There were still some turns I didn’t see coming though.
Yet, I really would love for there to be a normal character who excels in a world where everyone is paranormal. I would have loved for Cass to just be the norm he wanted to be. Perhaps that is why the reader sees something from a mile away because we know that there has to be something extraordinary about Cassel. We know that he isn’t just a normal and because that is stuck in our heads we see the twists and turns even if our protagonist doesn’t. It’s a minor gripe though, but in YA urban fantasy I really just want to be surprised by author’s choices, to be different in small subtle ways. Meh.
And of course you cannot help but not like the majority of the characters. They are not nice people. Hard to root for a family who is willing to prey on their own.
Buy or Borrow: Buy if you like Holly Black and her other titles. I enjoyed it and its staying in the Smirking library.
Part of: A series.
Book One: White Cat
Book Two: Red Glove
Book Three: Black Heart
Also Recommended: If you liked this please read Holly Blacks Modern Faerie Tale series beginning with Tithe. There is also a great anthology of her short stories called The Poison Eaters.
3.25 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks