Title: White Cat
Author: Holly Black
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry (US) / Gollancz (UK)
Publication Date: May 2010 (US) / June 2010 (UK)
Hardcover: 320 pages
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.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Curse Workers series
How did we get this book: Review Copies from the Publisher
Why did we read this book: When we first received a US copy of the book, we were ecstatic. Thea actually scoured the book for evidence when the whole purported Whitewashing Brouhaha emerged online (which, in our opinion, was overblown), and ended up reading the thing because it was so damn good. Shortly after, Ana received a review copy from the UK publisher, and, well, after that it was simple – VOLTRON FORCE ASSEMBLE! JOINT REVIEW!
Ana: Wow. WOW. Holy guacamole, this book is all kinds of awesome! Right now, I am feeling an overwhelming amount of love for White Cat. How could I not? This is an Ana Book through and through: a character-driven piece, an unreliable narrator and a unique Fantasy setting. I can’t believe I haven’t read anything by Holly Black before but this will be rectified straight away. In any case, this particular book was so good, I got so involved with the story and its main character Cassel, that when I closed the book, I was basically contorted into a ball of awesome angst. I love it so much, I’ve placed in my Special Shelf along with my Neil Gaimans and my Megan Whalen Turners. I love it so much, I would willingly make a Faustian pact to be able to read the sequel NOW.
Thea: I am a bit ashamed to say that I had never read anything by Holly Black before White Cat either – despite the urgings of my devoted younger sister (who is in luuuuuurve with her Modern Tales of Faerie books). When I received a gratis copy of White Cat, however, I knew it was time. And you know what? Even though I was reading the book under unusual circumstances, I found myself thinking, hey, this is pretty good. What started out as just a focused search for a character description turned into a full out pleasure read. I truly enjoyed White Cat for its awesome world and its sympathetic protagonist.
On the Plot:
Ana: Cassel Sharpe is the youngest son of a family of Workers – people with cursing ability. In this alternate universe, the curse workers were outlawed in the late twenties and most of them now work underground for Families (generally resembling Mafia Families) including Cassel’s family. His mother, currently in prison is an Emotion Worker, and his grandfather a Death Worker. His two older brothers, Barron and Philip are both brain and muscle for the family and the only odd one out is Cassel, who is unable to do Curse Work at all. Cassel is plagued not only by his inability but also by the fact that three years ago he killed his best friend Lila. His memory of that night is fuzzy but he recollects quite well, the feeling of joy whilst he stood over her bloody body. Guilt-ridden, Cassel aims to make a living as a normal guy attending boarding school away from his family, well as normal as someone how lives and enjoy cons can.
The book opens as Cassel finds himself on the roof of the school with no memory of getting there. Suspended from school, he returns to his family’s circle and starts questioning his memories as well as their motives as a White Cat starts trailing him.
This is going to be a really difficult review to write – as are all reviews of books with unreliable narrators. The why of this unreliability is part of what makes the book awesome and the reason why any attempt of reviewing the plot in depth would completely and totally spoil the book. Please note that Cassel is an unconscious unreliable narrator, for most part of the book, he doesn’t know he is one – fuzzy memories, they can do that to one person. This places him with other unreliable narrators such as Alex Bell’s Jasmym or Sarah Rees Brennan’s Nick.
There are at least three major plot twists in this book and I shouldn’t talk about them either. Even if two of them are clearly telegraphed from the get go and I actually believe this telegraphy is on purpose to put the reader at ease for the time when the last twist comes and completely BLOWS YOUR MIND OFF. The best plot twists are those who enhance an already awesome book and this exactly what happens here.
What I can say about the books with risking spoilers: the beauty of this book lies with its main character and in the amazing details of the world-building. Like, the fact that everybody in this world must wear gloves in order to prevent Curse Work (a Worker must touch one’s skin in order to curse effectively) and how because of that, a bare hand is both a sign of danger and a sensual, erotic sight. That there are seven types of curses including the aforementioned Emotion, Death but also Luck, Transformation, Dream, Body and Memory and how to every time one curses there is always a blowback. Cassel’s grandfather for example, a Death Worker has a few dead fingers. How Cassel’s family are obviously not white and yet this is not an “issue” instead one of the mains issues of the book is how Workers become criminals because they have no place in society opening up discussion of human rights, discrimination and prejudice. How even though Cassel is not a Curse Worker he is part of his family’s con jobs which means that if you are looking for a black and white book you better look away. White Cat is as grey as they come with unapologetically criminally inclined characters – including Cassel, who might not be a scumbag like his brothers but who definitely takes pride in being a con man. There is also intrigue and political maneuvering within the Family they work for and power play and let the best con man win.
Honestly, this is an incredible book.
Thea: Well, Ana’s pretty much covered it. In terms of worldbuilding, White Cat is pretty effing sweet. The magical system of “curse working,” the different types of magical abilities that these workers have are varied, unique, and utterly memorable. My favorite thing about the system of magic is Ms. Black’s adherence to Newton’s Third Law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Reciprocity, baby. You hardly ever see this in newer fantasy novels, and I love that there is a cost that workers have to pay for any use of their powers.
The other thing about White Cat that impressed me, and that I can safely talk about without spoiling anyone is the very twisty, untrustworthy, or as Ana would say unreliable nature of Cassel and his family. Cassel is the youngest in a family of conmen, thieves, and thugs – he is a criminal, and he shares in his family’s criminal tradition. The only difference being, of course, Cassel’s inability to work curses. I loved that this book is told from the perspective of the criminal (as Cassel is a conman and a murderer), as opposed to the typical outsider good boy/girl that stumbles into the dark underbelly of society. I also love the subtle, interesting societal critique Ms. Black accomplishes here too – only a very, very small percentage of folks are born with the ability to work curses, and those that do have extremely limited options available to them – namely, they become criminals.
As for the actual plotting of the novel, without going into spoilers, I am a little less impressed with the “twists.” They are pretty transparent. There is this mounting tension in the novel, but even the final reveal was not completely unexpected. Now, that doesn’t mean the writing isn’t good – because it is. The problem with twists (as dear M. Night Shyamalan could tell you) is that they really need to blow your ass outta the water in order to work. And…White Cat unfortunately doesn’t really do that. That said, this is much more of a character-driven book, which works to the novel’s credit. Even if the plotting is mundane, the world building is wonderful, and I do admire Ms. Black’s simple, direct prose.
On the Characters:
Ana: As I said, the beauty of White Cat lies with its main character and narrator Cassel. I loved the guy’s from the get go. I felt for him and for his clear guilt about being a killer, his fear that he had this inside of him and might do it again. One of the best scenes in the book is when he looks at his ex-girlfriend and tries to picture himself killing her and when he can’t, he is overcome with relief. Even though Cassel is part of a family of criminals, he obviously has more defined grounds and limits that they don’t share and that I believe, comes from the fact he is not a Worker. That is what separates him from his family for the majority of the book and what makes it possible for the reader to sympathise with him. This sympathy, to me, meant that I sided with him completely , that I felt for him and his struggle, that when his heart broke mine broke too, that when he is hurt by the people who should love and protect him, I was overcome with such FURY that I could have stepped into the book to commit fictional assassination of at least 2 characters maybe three. This shows how much this book is GOOD, that I felt like that.
Mind you, this is not an easy book to read and that is only because I was so captivated by Cassel and because he doesn’t have it easy, neither did I. It is a very emotional journey for him and it was for me too. The way it ends, not with a cliff-hanger but with a very emotional bang (cause by the third character whose life I would happily abruptly end) , left me , as I said before, with a hole in my stomach, feeling bad for the guy. I can’t wait to read the sequel and the consequences of what happened here.
As for the other characters. Only incredibly well-written characters would make me feel the way I felt. Cassel’s brothers for example are scumbags who deserve to die a low death, his mother is crazy, his grandfather is awesome and there is a third character who is immersed in AWESOME SAUCE (tm Kenda) but whose name I am not at liberty to disclose. The great thing though is how this awesomeness stems from being ruthless and almost evil and yet incredibly believable and compelling.
Cassel though, Cassel makes this book work and I have no idea which side of the force he will fall into and that, that is amazing.
Thea: I agree that it is with Cassel’s voice that the book really gains its legs. His swagger as he tries to fit in with his family may be his outward facade, but inside Cassel is a stew of self-loathing, doubt and fear. It is easy for readers to sympathize with Cassel, for even though he has killed someone, we learn that he feels guilt, shame, and fear of recidivism. Even though he’s missing chunks of his memory and taunted by strange dreams, he has a good hold on his own feelings and beneath the fog of uncertainty there is this sense of morality – and I think this is what makes Cassel such a likable character.
Now am I ready to burst into tears or fight off Cassel’s asshole brothers? Not really. I actually quite loved how despicable the brother characters were – how Cassel looks up to them and wants their approval, and how abusive they are of Cassel’s naivete and trust. (I knew when I read this book though, that it had “ANA” written all over it – aka, my more emotional and character-empathizing smuggler-half).
Now, while Cassel is awesome, I think I loved a few other characters a bit more. One is a kickass chick, one is a twisted, powerhungry lunatic – I won’t name names because that way lies spoilers. But know they are there, and they are cool.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: If you can’t tell, I loved this book with every bit of my soul and Cassel above all things. I am prepared to lay my heart at Holly Black’s feet for writing this book and right now, White Cat is shortlisted for my top 10 of 2010.
Thea: I enjoyed White Cat, and I think I really need to find some more Holly Black books. While I’m not as ecstatic as Ana, I really enjoyed this book. Definitely recommended.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air.
Above me are stars. Below me, the bronze statue of Colonel Wallingford makes me realize I’m seeing the quad from the peak of Smythe Hall, my dorm.
I have no memory of climbing the stairs up to the roof. I don’t even know how to get where I am, which is a problem since I’m going to have to get down, ideally in a way that doesn’t involve dying.
Teetering, I will myself to be as still as possible. Not to inhale too sharply. To grip the slate with my toes.
The night’s quiet, the kind of hushed, middle-of-the-night quiet that makes every shuffle or nervous panting breath echo. When the black outlines of trees overhead rustle, I jerk in surprise. My foot slides on something slick. Moss.
I try to steady myself, but my legs go out from under me.
I scrabble for something to hold onto as my bare chest slams down on the slate. My palm comes down hard on a sharp bit of copper flashing, but I hardly feel the pain. Kicking out, my foot finds a snow guard and I press my toes against it, steadying myself. I laugh with relief, even though I am shaking so badly that climbing is out of the question.
Cold makes my fingers numb. The adrenalin rush makes my brain sing.
“Help,” I say softly, and feel crazy nervous laughter bubble up my throat. I bite the inside of my cheek to tamp it down.
I can’t ask for help. I can’t call anyone. If I do, then my carefully maintained pretense that I’m just one of the guys is going to fade forever. Sleepwalking is kid’s stuff, weird and embarrassing.
Looking across the roof in the dim light, I try to make out the pattern of snow guards, tiny triangular pieces of clear plastic that keep ice from falling in a sheet and were never meant to hold my weight. If I can get closer to a window, maybe I can climb down.
I edge my foot out, shifting my weight as slowly as I can and worming toward the nearest snow guard. My stomach scrapes against the slate, some of the tiles chipped and uneven beneath me. I step onto the first guard, then down to another and across to one at the edge of the roof. There, panting, with the windows too far beneath me and nowhere left to go, I decide I am not willing to die from embarrassment.
I suck in three deep breaths of cold air and yell.
“Hey! Hey! Help!” The night absorbs my voice. I hear the distant swell of engines along the highway, but nothing from the windows below me.
“Hey!” I scream it this time, guttural, as loudly as I can, loud enough that the words scrape my throat raw. “Help!”
A light flickers on in one of the rooms and I see the press of palms against a glass pane. A moment later, the window slides open. “Hello?” someone calls sleepily from below. For a moment her voice reminds me of another girl. A dead girl.
I hang my head off the side and try to give my most chagrined smile. Like she shouldn’t freak out. “Up here,” I say. “On the roof.”
“Oh my god,” Justine Moore gasps.
Willow Davis comes to the window. “I’m getting the hallmaster.”
I press my cheek against the cold tile and try to convince myself that everything’s okay, that it’s not a curse, that if I just hang on a little longer, things are going to be fine.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Also, check out the very cool book trailer:
Additional Thoughts: Now that we’ve had our first taste of Holly Black, we need more! So give us suggestions – where do we start?
Ana:8 – Excellent leaning towards 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Thea: 7 – Very Good
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