From the BLURB:
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 façade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his façade 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.
This is one of my favourite books of 2010.
This book, the first in Holly Black’s ‘Curse Workers’ series, is told from the perspective of 17-year-old Cassel Sharpe; schoolboy, black sheep and con artist.
Holly Black is writing about a world that is ours, but with a few differences. In this alternate reality there exist ‘workers’- individuals who can work magic. Only one in a thousand people are workers. There are any number of varying worker magicks, ranging from luck, to dreams and memory, and in the case of Cassel’s family – curse.
Cassel is the only non-worker in his family. His grandfather lost his fingers because of a blowback from a curse (blowback being the price an individual pays for dealing in magicks). And Cassel’s mother is currently in jail for working a con curse.
See, Cassel’s family aren’t just curse-workers. They’re also old-fashioned con-artists. Cassel may not have inherited the worker gene, but he certainly learnt to finesse the ‘long con’. At his boarding school Cassel is an underground bookie. He runs bets on which teachers are hooking up and how many times a year the cafeteria will serve ‘non-nut nut brownies’. He also does some forgery and fake-ID’s on the side. Cassel is one cool-cat, sort of a modern Ferris Bueller. He’s a bad-boy with a quick wit and is instantly likable. But just as quickly as you fall for him, Cassel forces you to reconsider when he confesses his greatest sin:
Here’s the essential truth about me: I killed a girl when I was fourteen.
So begins Cassel’s twisted journey to the truth. All this we learn in the opening chapter. And it only gets better from there.
In the opening chapter Cassel finds himself on the roof of his school dormitory. He’s not particularly surprised – when he was younger he was a chronic sleepwalker (called somnambulism). And besides, Cassel is half convinced the resurgence of his somnambulism is due to his recurrent feelings of guilt – because he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago. Except Cassel can’t remember killing her. He was found with the body, a smile on his bloodied face, but everything else is a blank.
Surprisingly enough, learning the truth of Cassel’s murderous past doesn’t retract from the likability of his character. Even when Cassel himself tries hard to convince you otherwise.
It takes a lot of effort to pretend you’re something you’re not. I don’t think about what music I like; I think about what music I should like. When I had a girlfriend, I tried to convince her I was the guy she wanted me to be. When I’m in a crowd, I hang back until I can figure out how to make them laugh. Luckily, if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s faking and lying.
I told you I’d done plenty wrong.
I told you I’d done plenty wrong.
The above is almost Dexter-esque for its portrayal of a psychopath trying to fit in. But as the story progresses, you begin to realize that the person Cassel thinks he is, the Cassel his family know and the Cassel readers are getting to know are three very different people. Cassel has a skewed view of himself, and both his and his family’s interpretation of him and his past have completely twisted the young man he actually is.
Cassel is not a bad guy – no matter how much he implores readers to be wary of trusting him. Cassel is the black sheep of his family. He is runt to his two older brothers, Phillip and Barron and reluctant accomplice to his mother’s mad cons. He comes from bad stock, but isn’t bad himself. He loves the con, but only because it was how he fit into his family and felt close to his parents.
The story starts to get dark and twisted when Cassel’s sleepwalking episodes become linked to his brother, Barron’s, failing memory and Cassel’s belief that Lila is haunting him in the form of a white cat. Suddenly Cassel starts wondering if his memories are his own, if he really did kill Lila and who in his family could have stolen his past.
Holly Black is one-half of the writing-duo responsible for ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ (with Tony DiTerlizzi). I've never read the infamous ‘Spiderwick Chronicles’, but after ‘White Cat’ I may have to. I have completely fallen in love with Black’s writing and masterful storytelling.
Holly Black writes some truly spectacular flashbacks. So succinct and enticing are these flashbacks that they read like stand-alone short-stories. For example, the few paragraphs in which Cassel recounts his first ‘con’, opening with the words;
The first time I realized I had a talent for crime was after Mom took me out – just me – for a cherry slushy.
Black’s writing is completely lush. The storyline itself is a warped fare as Cassel’s journey takes him on a trip down memory(loss) lane. Cassel is a fantastically convoluted character – and Black really makes readers work hard to marry Cassel’s past to the young man we are reading and come to our own conclusion about the content of his character.
I loved this book. I could not put it down! I have fallen head-over-heels in love with Cassel and Holly Black’s writing. I can’t wait for ‘Curse Workers’ book #2, ‘Red Glove’, tentatively scheduled for a 2012 release (too far away!!!)
This is one of my favourite books of 2010. Add it to your TBR list – you will not be disappointed!