Fantastic Reviews - YA Fantasy Book Review
 cover of White Cat White Cat by Holly Black

The Curse Workers, book one

Margaret K. McElderry Books paperback - Copyright 2010
310 pages
Cover design by Russell Gordon and Michael McCartney

Book reviewed October 2011
Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Amy Peterson

          White Cat by Holly Black, book one of The Curse Workers, is a dark twisted tale, a YA fantasy noir.  It's a fast reading, modern-day fantasy which I, as an adult, can highly recommend.

This is the first book I've read by Holly Black.  She is best known as the co-creator (with artist Tony DiTerlizzi) of the bestselling children's series The Spiderwick Chronicles.  Holly Black has also written three teen books - Tithe, Valiant and Ironside - in her Modern Faerie Tales series.

The setting of White Cat is in and around New Jersey.  This isn't your typical urban fantasy because there are no supernatural beings to battle or to romance.  No vampires, no werewolves, no zombies.  There is magic, but isn't called that, it's called "curse work".  Only a small minority of people are curse workers.  Curse work is banned in the USA and it's controlled by a handful of Mafia-like worker families.

There are seven kinds of curse workers:  luck, emotion, physical, dream, memory, death and transformation.  Some types, such as luck, are more common.  People can be worked with a brush of a bare finger, so in this world, everyone wears gloves.  Stone charms or amulets can be worn for protection.

The story is told from the point-of-view of seventeen year old Cassel Sharpe.  He's enrolled at Wallingford, a boarding prep school.  He's getting good grades, but is struggling to fit in.  He comes from a family of workers, but isn't a worker himself, although he does have a talent for con games.  Cassel struggles with self-hatred because he killed a girl when he was fourteen.  Her name was Lila, and she was his best friend.  His family covered up the murder.  Lila was the spoiled daughter of the head of the Zacharov family.

The book begins with Cassel sleepwalking suicidally onto the roof of his dorm.  Cassel dreamed he was chasing a white cat that bit out and stole his tongue.  Against his wishes, administrators at Wallingford put Cassel on medical leave.

Cassel doesn't have a family to return to.  His mother is in jail for emotion working a rich guy, and his father died several years ago.  His oldest brother, Philip, who has a wife and son, works as a thug for a worker mob family.  His other brother Barron, who is at Princeton, once dated Lila, in part, to mess with Cassel's head.

Cassel's brother Philip picks him up at school.  Philip is uncomfortable with Cassel staying with his family more than overnight, so Philip farms Cassel out to Grandad, a former death worker with missing fingers, to clean out the vacant, extremely cluttered, family house.  But before he leaves, Cassel becomes concerned about Philip's wife, Maura, because she hears music that no one else can hear.

Before he can return to Wallingford, Cassel needs a doctor's evaluation, something he isn't above forging.  But he also needs to stop sleepwalking.  Cassel has another odd sleepwalking dream involving a white cat.  It turns out that one of the cats living in the barn behind the house is white.

After his sister-in-law Maura forgets something she confided with him, Cassel comes to believe that Maura was curse worked.  Because he likes Maura, he insists she take a memory charm.  Then Cassel begins to question other things that don't make sense, such as his not knowing why he killed Lila.  Cassel conceals several small memory charms on himself.

In the end, Cassel figures out a past that he was oblivious to, foils a criminal plot, and generally helps save the day.  Along the way, some things go humorously awry.  I like that the wrongs are realistically resolved and not everything ends shiny and wonderful.

In White Cat, Cassel learns some truths about himself, some important, others he'd probably rather not know.  Being a teenager, Cassel sometimes unwisely talks before thinking.  Like Harry Potter, he tries to solve serious problems without adult help.  But he gains a couple of true friends in his Wallingford roommate, Sam Yu, and Sam's girlfriend, Daneca Wasserman.

The author, Holly Black, nicely thought out the magic in this book.  Curse work is not common and there's blowback, consequences, on those who use it.  There are known side effects to being worked.  Charms, those that are not fakes, only work once against a specific type of curse.  Curse workers are explained, in semi-scientific terms, as being Hyperbathygammic or HBG, which means having higher gamma waves.  A controversial test is available to determine if someone is a worker.  HBG is cleverly colloquially called the Heebeegeebies.

One of my only problems with White Cat is that several of the clues to plot twists are a bit too obvious.  But as this is a YA book, ages 14 up, I'll cut it some slack.  It was fun to read the story unfold.  Also I question the apparent permanency of some curses, while other curses wear off in a matter of months.  Yet I found the characters and situations full of lively details, and the book thoroughly entertaining.

          The second book, the next episode, in Holly Black's Curse Workers series, Red Glove, is already out.  I look forward to soon reading Red Glove, in part because I want to find out how annoyed Cassel is with his mother after the "gift" she gave him.  According to the author's website, the third book in the series, Black Heart, is forthcoming next year.
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Copyright 2011 Amy Peterson

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Links to other Holly Black reviews, articles, and websites:
Holly Black - author's website
The Curse Workers - book series website, book trailer
Holly Black - Wikipedia
Dear Author | REVIEW: White Cat by Holly Black
Poetry to Prose | Book Review: White Cat by Holly Black

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 31 October 2011