White Cat by Holly Black
Genre: YA, fantasy, supernatural, crime
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Summary: Cassel Sharpe is a thief, a con man, and a murderer. He’s also a student at Wallingford boarding school, trying to blend in and have a normal life. His mother is in jail for “working” and his brothers both work for a famous crime boss. They are curse workers – people with magical powers they utilize just by touching someone else with their bare hand. Curse workers can grant people luck, change their memories, or even kill them with a single touch. All working is illegal. Cassel is the only non-worker in his family, but he is plagued by odd dreams, fits of sleepwalking, and holes in his memory. Who is he really? And how can he live with himself after everything he’s done?
I bought this book for like $2 during the final days of Borders and finally picked it up for more Leakycon prep – since Holly Black will be there and I had not read anything she’s written. My friends have disliked Holly’s books so I was kind of wary, but White Cat ending up being a pretty cool book that I would totally recommend.
The world is built very nicely on top of our own – lots of little historical and political details that allow curse workers to slide right into the reality we already know. Our narrator is Cassel Sharpe – I like him much more than I like that ridiculous name. We watch him struggle to fit in at a normal school – try to have friends, a girlfriend, and basically try to pretend he’s normal. But he’s not – his family is deeply entrenched with the famous Zacharov crime family of curse workers. Curse workers have magical powers that they use on others by touching them with their hands. There are different kinds of curse workers – some affect dreams or memory, others can give people good or bad luck, some can kill people with just a touch. Everyone in this world wears gloves. Cassel’s not a worker himself, but he’s been highly trained by his mother as a thief and a con man – giving him habits he constantly has to hide from the other kids at school. Even worse than that – he’s a murderer. When he was 14, he killed the girl he loved and he doesn’t even remember doing it. Just that his family covered it up.
I really enjoy Cassel as a character. His reactions and thoughts are just so interesting. Clearly he has a really fucked up family and had a really fucked up childhood so soaked in crime family drama that it’s awesome he can fit in outside of that at all. He finds it hard to make friends and struggles with whether he even deserves to have any after what he did. He’s complicated and layered in a surprising way. I think often with characters like this in YA novels, they can be exaggerated or over-dramatized to the point where their crazy backstory and general emo-ness just make you roll your eyes. But Cassel is cool. You want to like him anyway and there is definitely emotional attachment as you read his story.
I like a book where I can guess the twist before it actually happens – but not TOO soon before it actually happens. If I guess too soon, then I think it silly for being so obvious and therefore not really a twist at all. But if I can’t guess it at all, I get frustrated – like the author wasn’t giving me enough clues and backstory to try to build my own ideas. (I think this was one of my problems with Book of Blood and Shadow). Not that I’m opposed to a complete out of the blue surprise once in awhile, but if you’re obviously building up to something big, I want to at least have an inkling of what it might be. I thought Holly was excellent at this and created a good balance of clues and mystery. I especially liked her use of inserting bits of Cassel’s past in between the main narrative.
My biggest problem with this book is completely insignificant to the story, but just annoyed me the entire time. The setting is New Jersey. And I could not wrap my brain around the geography that Holly was laying down. They keep talking about the place they grew up – Carney – as some place in South Jersey at the shore. This is a fictional town I guess, so that’s fine. And Cassel repeatedly tells us he’s in the Pine Barrens, but then somehow is driving back and forth to Princeton real quick all the time. If he’s near this made up shore town Carney, it’s going to take him like 2 hours to get to Princeton. Even on the outer edge of the Pine Barrens, I’d guess that’s still a good 45 minutes to an hour drive. Then he drives up to a party at a girl’s house in Neshanic Station. That is like not even Central Jersey anymore, just flat out North Jersey. Then he’s at a strip mall on Route 9 – again like an hour away if he is anywhere near Princeton or the outer edge of the Pine Barrens, but he makes it sound nearby. Then they drive on up to New York City in the middle of the night like it’s no big deal. From South Jersey? Believe me, I drive up and down this state constantly and it is a lame, long drive. But somehow in this book, everything seemed to be like 15 minutes away all the time.
Also, I read a tiny bit of the preview for the sequel, Red Glove, in the back of the book. In the beginning, Cassel claims to be staying in casinos and then when they notice he isn’t paying his bill, he just “moves down the strip.” Um…moves down the strip? There are eight casinos (well now nine, but at time of writing eight) along the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Eight. Surely they are going to notice your crazy ass not paying for your room. Some of those casinos are even ATTACHED to each other – most of them use the same systems to keep track of your information. Also, they’re getting away with not leaving a credit card at the front desk because they’re workers? Um, no…someone who you did not work would notice that in a matter of hours probably and be kicking your ass out.
And then the worst (this is actually in White Cat) – Cassel goes on to the casino floor and sees people at slot machines with QUARTERS. Quarters! And big plastic tubs to keep their quarters in!! Are you kidding me? This book was published in 2010. No freaking way.
Wow…that was a really long New Jersey rant. Sorry, I got carried away, but it bothered me a lot the whole book. It also made me think about how normally I don’t pay much attention to setting details like that – either because I’m reading about a world so different than ours that it doesn’t matter or I’m reading about a place that is foreign to me so I don’t care or notice. But these details obviously matter a bit!
But anyway, all those things about Jersey do not actually affect the coolness of this story. I totally dig the curse workers, the crazy crime family drama, and the hidden secrets in this book. Just the right level of heaviness to get you attached, but still a quick read that doesn’t bog itself down with too much teenage melancholy. Interesting characters and a unique, original fantasy idea combine to make a really neat book. You should read it!
-Unique and interesting characters
-Original story and fantasy elements
-Cool crime-family drama stuff
-Hard to define genre, and there’s never anything wrong with that
-Crazy Jersey geography that makes no sense to me
-You can’t put quarters in a slot machine
P.S. One thing I forgot to mention – a character named Desi literally says, “You’ve got some explaining to do.” REALLY.