White Cat: The Curse Workers, #1 -- Holly Black
On the cover art: Cassel's skin tone is described in vague enough terms to suggest a pretty broad range of possibilities, but in specific enough terms to make me do a double-take at the Edward Cullen-lookalike on the cover. From page 43-44:
"Who knows? It's all a mystery. Dad was blond and I bet he found the name Sharpe in a Cracker Jack box of fake IDs. As for Mom's side of the family, Gramps says that his father--her grandfather--was a maharaja of India. He sold tonics from Calcutta to the Midwest. Makes some sense that we could be Indian. His last name, Singer, could be derived from Singh. But that's just one of his stories."
"Your grandfather told me that someone in your family was descended from a runaway slave," she says. I wonder what she thought when she married Phillip. People are always coming up to me on trains and talking to me in different languages, like it's obvious I'll understand them. It bothers me that I never will.
"Yeah," I say. "I like the maharaja story better. And don't even get me started on the one where we're Iroquois. Or Italian. And not just Italian, but descended from Julius Caesar."
Like I said, vague. But there are multiple references to his (and his brothers') skin color in the text, both in his narration and in the dialogue between characters, enough that I felt the model on the book cover was an extremely strange choice. There's a great example towards the end of the book, but it also involves a big spoiler, so you'll have to find that one for yourself. Moving on to the actual story...
Curse workers have the ability to affect our world in different ways -- they can affect your luck, your memories, your dreams. Some can change your emotions, and some can kill. When they work their magic, though, there is always a price: whenever they work, there is some form of blowback -- and it can act in unpredictable ways. Actually, there is more than one price -- because working is illegal. So, if you are a worker, you are automatically a criminal.
Cassel is the only non-worker in a worker family. His grandfather is a retired mob death worker, his two brothers are currently working for the same criminal empire, and his mother is in prison. He grew up around mobsters, con men and grifters -- and his lack of magic didn't stop him from picking up some not-so-straight-and-narrow non-magic tricks.
Despite his background, his personal history, and his knowledge, he's at prep school, living as normal a life as he can, trying his best to fit into the normal world. (Mostly.) One night, though, after a terrifying and strange dream about a white cat, he wakes up on the roof of his dorm. That incident is at the beginning of a strange and confusing journey through his past and present -- one that makes him question everything he has always believed and everyone he has always trusted.
Okay. AWESOME premise. I'm a sucker for con men and grifters, stories about con men and grifters, and descriptions of how con men and grifters do their thing. White Cat has all of that. It has a cool and well-thought-out magic system -- I always like it when magic has consequences, because then it's not so easy -- a lot of atmosphere, and Cassel's voice has the classic tone of a noir hero.
It's interesting, my relationship with Holly Black's books. (Well, I think it's interesting. So you're stuck with it.) I enjoy her storytelling, her world-building, plotting and voice, I always read them in one sitting, but I've never connected emotionally with her main characters. I don't know why. If this had been the first one I'd read, I'd chalk it up to the genre -- I know that I always hold myself back a bit with the noirs, because you never know how things'll turn out at the end -- but as of yet, that's the way it's always gone with us.
That lack of connection didn't stop me from enjoying it, but it, in part, stopped me from getting fully invested in the characters and losing myself in the story. The other thing that made trouble for me is going to (I'm warning you!) sound really lame, but these things happen -- I read the Acknowledgments first (which, in my defense, were at the beginning of the book), and so every time I reached a related point in the narrative, I'd think, "Oh, fun -- she rode around with Kelly Link to get that description," or, "Oooo, I bet that bit came out of a conversation with Justine Larbalestier." So I kept getting bounced out of the story. But I'm sure that won't be an issue for most people.
Lastly, for all that people have raved about the twistiness of this story, I really wasn't surprised at any of the revelations. Again, I still enjoyed the book, but... Shocking Surprises I did not find. Regardless of any of my issues (and for the most part, I suspect they will be mine alone), I'll certainly be recommending it to my Cassandra Clare fans.
Book source: My local library.
Amazon Associate. If you click through and buy something, I receive a small commission.