I’d never read any of Holly Black’s books before I picked up White Cat. Faeries were never my favorite,but I bought White Cat because it was about magicians. Curse workers, to be precise. And, because I’m me, the cover sucked me in. It was cool and magician-y while still being kind of mysterious and completely fitting with the demographic. Not to mention the book. It’s hard to do a cool cover and have it make sense with the pages inside, but White Cat definitely succeeded there.
White Cat tells the story of Cassel, the only untalented member of a notorious family of curse workers. Curse workers are like magicians. Through touch, they can perform all manner of magic: emotional manipulation, memory modification, death, you name it. But each curse worker has a specific skill, their particular curse, and they can’t go outside of its bounds. The more powerful the curse worker, the more in demand they are – in demand for less than savory assignments. Cassel’s family is powerful. His whole life they’ve been involved in criminal applications of their skill. He can’t shake the feeling that they had something to do with the long-ago disappearance of Lila, his best friend and the first girl he ever cared about. And he can’t shake the feeling that something unusual is happening in his nightmares, nightmares haunted by a white cat that reminds him of Lila. All around him, Cassel’s world is falling apart and everything he thought he knew about himself and his family and the world of curse workers is called into question when weird things start stemming from his nightmares.
The plotting of this book was magnificent. It’s really rare for that to be something I latch onto in any novel, but here I loved it. There was a good mystery that was well foreshadowed without the answers being obvious. The pacing was perfect – you could feel Cassel’s anticipations and frustrations because the roadblocks were thrown up for the readers as much as they were for him. And, most importantly for me, it was a good vehicle to let the characters come alive because they were always doing things. There were things happening, and, as strange as this may sound, that is something that seems to have slipped away in YA novels in favor of longing looks and conversations about Feelings.
And part of that plot was Cassel’s journey. His “self-discovery” (I always feel lame when I use that phrase, but that’s what it is!) is so well integrated into the plot and what’s going on around him that it doesn’t feel like all you’re reading is an emotional reaction. He takes charge – not always well – but he does and it worked so well with the rest of the book.
It’s hard for me to talk about how much I loved Cassel, because…I loved him a lot. He was imperfect. He had a tendency to be rash and impulsive. His moral compass seems a little wobbly at times. But the thing about Cassel is that it always ends up pointing in the right direction. There are lines that couldn’t be crossed with him that weren’t there for his brothers, and I loved that. There’s a difference between being the kind of character who is going to break school rules and scam a pet adoption center versus the kind of character who is a creepy stalker or a murderer or a manipulator.
The background characters were very well drawn as well. It’s hard in a book where the main character’s family members are the “villains” to walk the line between total emotional detachment and turning a blind eye. Cassel knows what his family is and who they are, but they’re his family. He’s not going to help them or let them do things he thinks are wrong, but at the end of the day they’re still his family. His struggle to reconcile those two things was one of my favorite parts of this book.
White Cat is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s dark and ominous and mysterious while still having some of the best written characters I’ve read in a young adult book. It’s the perfect balance between the nitty gritty of a criminal life, the fantasy of the curse workers, and the coming-of-age story of Cassel. I’ve re-read pieces of this book more than once since I bought it, and I would consider doing some very, very bad things to be able to read the sequel, Red Glove, omgrightnow.
And…because more people should be around to discuss Cassel with me, I’m giving away a SIGNED copy! All you have to do to enter is 1) live in North America and 2) comment on this entry sometime between now and Monday, November 15 at midnight CST. Tell me what magical skill – if you could only have one – you would want. Good luck!