042 – White Cat by Holly Black

White Cat cover 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 facade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his facade 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.
So here we are, reviewing another popular book by another popular author, and we were a little nervous. Those don’t usually tend to work out well, at least for us. Still, we’d heard good things about White Cat, so we were excited to be able to borrow a copy from a friend of ours. This is the first full novel by Holly Black that we’ve read (although Cyna had quite liked her short story collection The Poison Eaters), and our honest opinion is…we thoroughly enjoyed it. Holly Black is one of the rare YA authors who manages to successfully create a compelling story, well developed characters,and a unique world, with some of the best writing we’ve seen in a long time. Sometimes the book really lives up to the hype and White Cat is one of those books.

Holly Black’s writing style was so refreshing. While other authors haven’t seemed to grasp the concept of show-not-tell, Holly Black does, and very well. There is very little exposition – almost everything you learn about the characters, world, and backstory comes from Cassel’s – our hero’s – flashbacks, dreams, or little observations. For example, the first time we’re introduced to Cassel’s friend Daneca, he mentions patches on her backpack that identify her as a vegan and activist, but never says that outright. It seems like a small thing, but it’s hugely indicative of this character’s personality, and you understand what sort of person she is just from one little observation. It’s nice, especially when you consider that most other authors would have just said something along the lines of “And then my vegan activist friend walked over.” But that is White Cat – shown, maybe almost to a fault.

That’s probably the only downside of Black’s writing – you have to really like those character-developing detours, because there are a lot of them. We can see how other readers might find them irritating, but to us, every flashback was fascinating, no matter how irrelevant it seemed at the time.

The pacing was fantastic as well. You begin the book totally in the dark about everything – the way Black’s world works, Cassel’s family, and the mystery surrounding his past and sleepwalking. But every chapter of the first half of White Cat gives you bits and pieces of the big picture, while keeping you wanting more. The trouble with that is that by the time you hit the halfway point, you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on, and it takes Cassel himself quite a bit longer to figure it out. But it’s not too huge an issue – by the time the reader and Cassel sync up again, the book shifts its focus to resolving the plot. And for that, you just have to enjoy the ride, because there is no way you’re going to keep up with Cassel’s Ocean’s Eleven-style scheme, and the back-stabbing and double-crossing that follows. Well, schemes, plural. There is more than one, and most of the time, things don’t exactly go according to plan, but that’s awesome. It’s nice to see that, like in real life, Murphy’s Law can apply, and it’s interesting to watch the characters scramble to recover.

The world that Holly Black has created for White Cat is pretty damn awesome, too. We loved the idea of Curse Workers, and everything that was included with them – the charmed rocks, the discrimination against the Curse Workers themselves, the Worker-activist groups, and most especially, the gloves.

We loved the fact that literally everyone wears gloves, and that not doing so is incredibly dangerous for them. In Cassel’s world, children are taught to run away from people who approach them without gloves on, and that makes sense, because that’s the only way Workers can curse people – hand-to-skin contact. Not only that, but the idea of casual bare-handed contact is almost disgusting for them – at one point Cassel remembers how his mother would have him and his brothers remove their gloves around one another as a sign of trust, and his immediate reaction was “Ew, I don’t want to touch someone else’s hand.” It’s funny how something like that makes you think about things differently – like how gross touching someone else’s hands are, and how much cleaner the world would be if everyone wore gloves… At any rate, it’s one of those little details that makes White Cat that much more realistic.

The other world aspect we really loved was Blowback. Blowback is what happens as a result of a Curse Worker using their powers on someone else. For example, Cassel’s grandfather is a “death Worker”, and every time he uses his powers to kill someone, some part of his own body blackens and dies, which has the potential to be deadly. The same principal applies to every kind of Curse Worker, and the nature of the blowback is directly related to not only how the person is cursed, but how severely. Basically, good cursing gets good blowback, and bad brings bad.

This is just such a cool idea – a physical manifestation of karma? Hell yeah. We loved that there are consequences to using powers in this world, potentially deadly and debilitating consequences. It’s so cool to see what are essentially the laws of physics applied to magic, and another detail that makes White Cat more realistic. Not only that, but it’s demonstrative of the way Black isn’t afraid to put her characters through hell, and we liked that.

The characters that populate White Cat are wonderfully complex and well-developed, and cover the full spectrum of morality. Our protagonist, Cassel, is the prime example of that, being a “good guy” who is not only born-and-raised conman, but also believes himself to be a cold-blooded murderer. It’s, you know, a horrible burden to live with, but makes for funny moments, like when he tests his conscience by imagining himself strangling his girlfriend, and then feels relieved when the thought makes him sick.

But we liked Cassel. He’s a charming character, resourceful and likable and smart, and it’s fascinating to read his thought process. He has to actively try to be what we would generally consider a good person – since his first instinct is typically to lie and manipulate – and yet he does, even though it’s the more difficult path for him. He’s probably the only one in his family (of conmen) who doesn’t seem himself as better than the people he cons, and who actually feels bad for doing so, which is, y’know, a good thing. That being said, we loved reading about the cons he did end up doing – they’re ridiculously elaborate. Really, there was only one issue we had with his character through the book – he’s whipped. Like bad. We really hope in the next book that he grows some balls when it comes to Lila.

Then there’s Lila, his love interest/victim, who was a nice surprise. In other books, this type of character would have been helpless and sweet and grateful to the person who rescued her, but Lila is a complete and total bitch. She is wild, demanding, spoiled, and always takes charge, far from the type of female character you’d expect for this genre, and we loved this. It’s brave of Black to create a female character who isn’t immediately likable, and it’s nice to see a girl who can kick ass, and isn’t wholly motivated by her feelings for a boy.

Cassel’s family was an interesting bunch as well. We hated Phillip – any guy who would let his wife be Worked to the point that she was mentally unstable, just so that she wouldn’t leave him, is a fuck-up prick douchebag asshole. Fuck that guy. Barron is a difficult character to get a bead on, but in the end, we both felt like he was intended to be a complete lunatic and responded to him accordingly. It’ll be interesting to see where his character goes in the sequels.

Then there’s Cassel’s mother, who we should utterly despise, considering that she’s an emotionally abusive, manipulative parent and remorseless conwoman. It would have been easy to write her off as an irredeemable bitch, but Black gives her an unexpected depth and complexity that almost enables you to sympathize. She is character who was probably emotionally and mentally unstable from the start, and the blowback that she endures as an emotion Worker has only made that worse over time. Like a perpetual child, she views the con as a game, and enjoys it as such, but doesn’t really understand the consequences that go along with her actions. Similarly, she genuinely seems to love her children, but doesn’t realize that the way she manipulated and bullied them as children was damaging. To her, it was all for their own good. Pretty heavy stuff, and we love Black for going there.

All in all, we really, really enjoyed White Cat – it was captivating and well-written, and incredibly unique, and we’re so happy that we understand now why Holly Black is so popular. We can’t wait to read the next book in the series, and maybe look into some of her older ones.

four stars


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