Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review: White Cat

White Cat by Holly Black
Published: May 4th 2010 by Margaret K. McElderry
Word Count: 76,600
Series:Curse Workers, book one
Source: library audiobook

My Grade: A+

Synopsis from
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.

A guy having dreams about and following a white cat? C’mon, that’s corny and dumb. What guy is going to want to pick that book up? Unfortunately, based on the synopsis alone, I don’t think many teenage guys will, which is a shame, because the synopsis does not do this book justice. [Edit: The synopsis from GoodReads gives a much better picture than the one I got from the synopsis on the back of the audiobook case!]

Having read Black’s Valiant, I was hesitant to give this book a shot. Valiant was just ok for me, and with a premise that sounded less promising than the previous read, I doubted White Cat was going to be better. But boy, was I wrong. White Cat is ten times better! The story is nuanced and layered with so much more texture to it that it at first seems. The relationships – especially within the Sharpe family – the con-artist lifestyle, the mafia type hierarchical system of powerful Worker families, the deals, schemes, double-agents, and especially the memory work that keeps you guessing the whole time all combine to keep the reader invested in the action.

Family is a big theme here. Along with betrayal, trust, lies, loyalty, cover-ups, and ties that bind, these prominent themes are all considered and explored through  the context of what they mean when they occur within a family. Cassel hates and loves his brothers at the same time – hates them for how they lied to him, for what they made him do, and for making him believe he had killed his best friend. But despite that, he still wants to save them from a fate born of the consequences of their criminal enterprises.

The most unique aspect of this book is that the usual YA fantasy premise has been flipped on its head. The protagonist is utterly normal, and everyone else around him has a special ability. I thought that was clever as it hasn’t really been explored yet. (At least not in anything I’ve read.) But after the first few chapters I started to suspect maybe Cassel is more like his Worker family members than he thinks. Then I decided I would be very disappointed if Cassel turned out to be a Worker and he just never knew it somehow. Because that would be soooo predictable and therefore, dull. However, while this does happen, Black provides an interesting twist that I didn’t see coming, and so I forgave her for the most obvious reveal in the history of YA fantasy protagonist self-revelation.

This book is the best type of book in its genre because it’s clearly fantasy (a percentage of the population are Curse Workers with magic powers and the larger population all know about them) without seeming to be fantasy at all. By this I mean that there are so many other real human issues, relationships, problems, and stakes that it is easy to forget the element propelling the story, which is the ability of some people to work curses. Yet at the same time Black has created a history for the Curse Workers that gives the fantasy element depth. She has seamlessly woven the telling of the Curse Worker history as well as its significance to the story into the fabric of the tale, so it does not feel forced, but natural. It fits perfectly into real human history and so does not feel foreign or ‘other.’  The fantasy elements support the ‘real’ human elements, not the other way around, which is the type of fantasy I like best. Also, I think it is the best type of fantasy for readers who are not fans of fantasy or are hesitant to pick up a fantasy book, because it shows how fantasy can be used to heighten and therefore highlight certain aspects of the human condition.

The writing is tight and the story well-planned. Although we are dealing with cons, which can easily get muddy and confusing and so can be hard to explain to the reader what is really going on, I never felt like I didn’t know what the score was. I liked that Cassel was clever enough to figure out what was happening but not let on that he knew what was happening until the right moment. I liked that he was confident in his conning abilities, almost like that was his Worker power, making up for what he thought he was lacking as a member of his family. I only hope that Black will not fall prey to the pitfalls of complex plots and subplots in her second book. I am more excited for the sequel to White Cat than I have been for a sequel in a long while.

Find it on Amazon: White Cat (Curse Workers, Book 1)

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