Holly Black is a marvelous magician. She may have no wands or bubbling cauldrons or magic spells, but her raw talent in creating a society that has a four-dimensional reality tantamount to our own and fleshing out characters that are easy to love (and love to hate) is enough to enchant her readers with her literary prowess. This is what she presented in the first installment of the Curse Workers trilogy, White Cat.
White Cat wowed me from the first pages and its effect on me stayed until I finished it. Basically the gist is this: Cassel Sharpe hails from a family of curse workers, or people who have the power to manipulate your emotions, luck, memories, and more by just the mere touch of their fingers. But it seemed like the genes have skipped him—he doesn’t have any powers. In order to make up for this, he masters the art of the con and attempts to live a normal life by blending with the crowd and at the same time keep his family’s secret, since curse working is outlawed. But he knows the halo perched atop his head is not exactly bright and clean. He killed his best friend Lila three years ago; he can’t remember the exact details, but he remembers the crime. Haunted by the ghosts of this fuzzy past, Cassel is a brooding and guilt-stricken mess beneath his neat facade. Things change drastically when he dreams about a white cat that is trying to tell him a message. When his brothers begin to act mysteriously, Cassel digs into his painful past and tries to outwit everyone else in the big con game that he thinks he’s in.
I’d like to commend Black for the world-building. She wove a world like the one we have today, except that there is real magic. One cool thing I find about this curse working stuff is the application of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When a person “worked” someone, he will reciprocate by getting a blowback. So bare hands are considered as deadly as knives and curse workers—good or bad—are declared criminals. Everyone is wearing gloves all the time, and it’s interesting to note how in this society, showing your bare hands is synonymous to being naked. Conmen, mobsters, and politicians populate the story, giving it another plus point in inflating this world.
The novel is character-driven. Black did a fairly good job in creating a great albeit very unreliable narrator, Cassel Sharpe. There are a lot of things to like about Cassel, but there are a good number of things to dislike about him too. What makes the former more possible for the readers is that Cassel knows his anxieties and insecurities—and he is honest about it. Well, at least to the readers—a con artist lies for a living, right? *shrugs* When you look at it at the wrong angle, though, this may make him sound like a horrible mope. Sympathy is what he almost always elicits from the readers. I just hope that Cassel will grow out of the self-pity and the self-loathing in the sequels (Red Glove and Black Heart) because if he would, I think he’d be more deserving of being the main hero of the story.
I think his fuzzy memory helped a lot in the revealing of the twists and turns in the story, making it a gut-wrenching hardboiled crime fantasy. There are some twists that you’d be able to see even it’s a mile away (and I have to admit that some are clichés), but the emotional blow of every turn—especially the last—is surprisingly hard. I feel very sorry for Cassel when I finished the book.
I have to say that this is one of the best noir fictions that I’ve ever read. There’s grit and beauty in equal terms; there are a few flaws, but it’s still a gem. It’s a shame to say, but I’ve never read any novel by Holly Black before I got my hands on White Cat. This mistake will be rectified now. Holly Black, welcome to my literary rock stars roster! :D