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White Cat by Holly Black (Review)

White CatThere’s this thing I inevitably do with Holly Black novels where I tell myself I’ll only read for a few minutes, just crack open this delicious book about punk faeries or curse workers or whatnot — only to look up blinking at the clock, discovering it reads 2 AM, and wondering where the night went. Her books mug you, but in a good way – which I suppose is especially apropos for White Cat, the first installment in The Curse Workers series.

Cassel is the only non-worker in a family of curse workers, whose powers range from the ability to instill emotion, to invoke terrible pain, or even to confer death with merely a touch. Although these powers each come with a pretty wicked handicap — killing someone with the lightest of touches means a piece of your body will wither in turn, for one — Cassel is pretty bummed about the whole non-worker thing. When the novel opens, he’s trying to distance himself from his worker family and the mafia they are tied to (because, of course, curse-working isn’t actually legal) by attending a boarding school and becoming someone who just blends. Cassel doesn’t blend easily. He can’t shake his family’s legacy, and we discover pretty quickly that he’s the school’s biggest and only underground bookie. (Bored students will apparently bet on anything, from who will hook up among the staff to who will catch the mouse currently eluding all pest control attempts in Stanton Hall.)

Cassel Sharpe fails at being normal, and the fact that he’s managed to sleepwalk to the top of a building is just the doom-icing on the cake — the administration is worried he’s been worked. That he’s cursed. Cassel wonders why anyone would bother. He’s no one in a family of someones, even if he does have bizarre and terrifying dreams about a white cat struggling to communicate.

Well, almost no one. He’s got a secret — as all the best con artists and tortured youths do — but not the one he thinks. He thinks that three years ago he murdered Lila Zacharov, the mob boss’s daughter and the best friend he’d been in love with since forever. He knows his family covered it up, which is the only reason he’s not dead yet. His actual secret is stranger still, and a mystery even from him. He unravels that mystery in spite of a meddling jailed mother, two brothers who are acting bizarre, and his grandfather who’s forcing him to clean out the hoarder’s paradise that is the old family place. Unsurprisingly, he finds himself once more embroiled in a realm of the mafia, murder, and illicit curses; surprisingly, there’s also one ubiquitous white cat. He almost gets expelled too, and somehow manages to make somewhat normal friends. Cassel’s on one wild and exhausting ride.

White Cat is a story about Family and family — about the mob, about those who are related by blood, about those we choose to call our own, and those we wish we could. It’s not always a comfortable book, considering the families it confronts are deeply dysfunctional, but it feels authentic and has the potential to appeal to a disaffected youth or those themselves from broken homes. The novel illuminates that you don’t have to be alone — and also that not being alone won’t fix all your problems, but at least has the power to make them a hell of a lot more bearable.

This first installment in The Curse Workers also features intriguing and delicious world-building. I am fascinated by the way Holly Black has so thoroughly imagined the social implications of these sorts of gifts, and find the blowback idea a stroke of relative genius to keep the world from being overpowered by minigods. Tragic demigods, sure, but not cavalier minigods. I appreciate her attention to the basics, and how she depicted a world where gloves are so entrenched that going out without them on is akin to going about without pants. She goes so much further, from suggested legislation regarding compulsive worker-testing to the extensive market for protective charms and more. I’m eager to see how she expands her world in the sequels.

Compulsively readable, with a surprisingly affecting plot, White Cat will demand not to be put down. I couldn’t agree with it more.

[This review was originally published at The Discriminating Fangirl.]

Purchase White Cat by Holly Black at Amazon.com in the print edition, or as a Kindle ebook.

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