White Cat (The Curse Workers, Book One) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Review copy from publisher. Also listened to the audiobook version, copy from the library.
The Plot: For Cassel Sharpe, 17, life is about family, curses, and the con. His family is full of curse workers – people who with a touch of the hand can curse you. Make you fall in love, invade your dreams, alter your memory, even kill you. Cassel is the lone non-worker in a family of workers.
As Cassel knows from helping his family, all criminals of one degree or another, you don’t have to be a worker to run a con. You don’t have to be a worker for people to be afraid of you. You don’t have to be a worker to kill someone.
When Cassel was 14, he killed his best friend, Lila. The daughter, and heir, of one of the big crime families. His family sent him off to a fancy boarding school, to protect him and to hide him and keep him out of the way. He keeps his hand in the game by doing a little bit of bookmaking.
One night Cassel almost dies: he has slept walked onto the roof of his school while having a disturbing dream about a white cat eating his tongue. He goes home and notices that his brothers are keeping things from him. Is he being kept out of the family’s biggest con because he’s not a worker? Or, even worse — is he being used? Is he being worked?
In a life full of lies, where even memories and emotions can be manipulated, Cassel has to figure out the truth.
The Good: This is an amazing mash-up of genres and I am head over heels in love. Maybe an emotion worker touched me with an ungloved hand while I wasn’t looking, but no, I think my love for White Cat is real and true. It’s difficult enough to write about a con, to write a mystery, to write about the supernatural or the mafia or family or friendship. To write about them all at once? For each to be spectacular? For all of them to be woven together flawlessly into one story? Amazing and impressive.
Any con caper has to balance two competing storytelling techniques: it must be simple enough for the reader to understand, and it must be unpredictable enough for the reader to be surprised. The reader, in a way, is the mark. I confess, the TV show Leverage has spoiled me because it balances these two perfectly, which means that I began White Cat with high expectations. It has to be at least as good as the TV show. Usually, that type of expectation put on a book is a problem and slightly unfair to the book. Not the case here, because White Cat is note-perfect in how it plays the con. In White Cat, the reader feels like they are in on the con, as smart and clever as Cassel and his family, yet as surprised and fooled as any mark when the full con is played out. As a reader, I love having a book not just meet but exceed high expectations.
If the structure of White Cat is a long con, at it’s heart, White Cat is a murder mystery. Did Cassel kill Lila? Why? Will he kill again?
In Cassel’s world, curses are real, and Black has created a realistic, detailed universe that is not just about the logic of curse work but also the consequences of curse work on society and culture. Since a touch of the hand can curse a person, glove wearing becomes the norm. A naked hand in public is a shocking thing; a naked hand in private is the ultimate show of trust. Consequences to curses exist: after a curse, the curse worker experiences blowback. Play with someone’s memory, lose a bit of your own. Cassel’s grandfather is a death worker, and he has lost a finger for each death curse.
All curse work has been banned. At different times, in different places, prejudice and discrimination have resulted in terrible acts against curse workers. Making curse work illegal, which basically criminalizes curse workers themselves, has created and strengthened organized crime. At one time, people feared curse workers because of the ability to cause harm; now, it’s combined with a fear of the criminal world. Cassel’s family is all involved, in one way or another, in crime. His brother Philip has the markings that show he owes his allegiance to one of the big families. These crime families involve themselves in illegal acts beyond curse work, but curse work is used to assist the illegal actions. Being outsiders have created a sense of family amongst workers, but the family activities include murder and drug dealing. White Cat manages to be both sympathetic to the criminals and to paint them in a horrifying, chilling light.
White Cat is also a fascinating take on alternate history. No, really! Cassel’s world is ours. He lives in New Jersey, and the details about Trenton, Princeton, the Pine Barrens all add dimension to the story and make it real. Yet at the same time it’s not our world, because it’s a history where curse workers have always existed and impacted history.
Cassel has been taught that in a world of liars and cons and curses, family is the only thing that matters, the only people who you can trust. After that, well, it’s all just part of the con. “Actually trusting someone when they have nothing to gain from me just doesn’t make sense. All friendships are negotiations of power.” The power, control, and structure of the different criminal worker families demand their own version of loyalty, including loyalty exhibited by the blood and ash of keloid necklaces.
Black’s use of language is delightful. I kept on marking passages, like this one, where Cassel thinks back on his childhood friendship with Lila: “I couldn’t tell if [Lila] hated me half the time, even when we spent weeks hiding under the branches of a willow tree, drawing civilizations in the dirt and then crushing them like callous gods. But I was used to brothers who were fast and cruel and I worshipped her.” Or, this: “I can’t trust the people I care about not to hurt me. And I’m not sure I can trust myself not to hurt them, either.”
Because White Cat explores loyalty and love as Cassel negotiates the criminal and curse workers world and realizes that he cannot trust what he was taught or how he was raised. Because I was up till two in the morning reading it. Because I immediately began reading the sequel, Red Glove. Because Black has created a world and a group of people that has made me care so much, and intrigued me so much, that after I finalize this post I’m off to find the fanfiction to give me a fix until the third book comes out. For all these reasons, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011 (and is why I don’t limit my favorites to books published in one year!)
I’m not sure I did a good enough job conveying just how much I enjoyed this book. As usual, Reading Rants has a terrific review. And after reading White Cat I promptly began listening to the audiobook version, which gave me an even better appreciation for the scattered clues and delicate plotting.