Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Naked Palms and Charmed Stones: My Review of "White Cat" and "Red Glove" by Holly Black

As I am reviewing two books - the first two - of a series, the second review will necessarily carry a few spoilers ... that being the case, if you are one of those people who won't read something after you know the ending, don't read the bottom half of this page. Instead, finish the top half, go read White Cat, then come back and have at it with the second half. You have been warned.

Don’t be too sympathetic. Here’s the essential truth about me: I killed a girl when I was fourteen. Her name was Lila, she was my best friend and I killed her anyway. There’s a lot of the murder that seems like a blur, but my brothers found me standing over her body with blood on my hands, and a weird smile tugging at my mouth What I remember most is the feeling I had looking down at Lila – the giddy glee of having gotten away with something.
White Cat, Holly Black, pp. 8
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.

         This book first came to my attention when perusing The Book Smugglers, as I do when coming into work on a Friday morning. They included it in their ongoing series of looking critically of "white washed" covers. Here is the link. Essentially, they were criticizing the fact that the actor on the cover of the book is very ... white. Which isn't a problem in itself except ... well, Cassel - and the actor is supposed to be Cassel - isn't really white. In fact, we're not sure "what" he is, but there are a few clues, and none point to a patrician nose and skin that burns. This of course is typical of most things: white washing is this awful mechanism by which big media thinks they can sell more by appealing to whites (and very select, carefully chosen whites) and it was, on the US cover (to the Right). I am not goign to lie, this pissed me off enough that I shrugged off the book entirely and decided it wasn't for me. Many moons later, I saw the UK cover (above) and had completely forgotten about the white washed cover. So I ordered it on Audible (and realized it was the same book ...) and listened to it. Was hooked. But now need to replace the awful cover with the Uk one ...

      As with Holly Black's Ironside series, this series focuses on teens in America in a weird universe where things are ... different. In Ironside, this was the whole faerie realm that popped up in New Jersey of all places and ran wild (great series btw - will review the last two books at some point here). The Curseworkers (this series) is rather a whole new universe in a sense: it is no longer faeries with the magic, it is humans with a particular genome. Some humans are born with a particular ability that allows them to alter things - matter, emotions, the unquantifiable "luck", even death - with the touch of a hand.
      I want to take a minute to discuss how truly innovative an author has to be to fabricate a world where everything has been split into levels of dealing with this ability: the militant regular humans (think of the non-mutant Senators of the X-Men series), the indifferent regular humans, the "bad" curse workers (which are all in gangs and mobs) and the "good" ones - more of a fine line, where they can be con artists, but hey! They don't kill anyone ... Black has shown her talent with this - the world that springs from between the words of this book was magical, yes, and yet eerily familiar to my history books - the colonies of workers banished from society sounded like the history of Australia or the ghettos of Eastern Europe; the paranoia among people sounded like the cold war and communism (McCarthyism anyone?); the Mobilization of worker mobs and conservative pressure from regular humans is akin to how the organized crime families began in Italy and Russia; and it goes on. Black took inspiration from human history to mold her world into the most ridiculously accurate world of magic that could be made, without sacrificing the seriousness of the world or the absurdity of the measures enacted against those who were different.

      Cassel himself is a character who straddles both worlds, and has the desire to live equally in both: the worker world with the power to awe, and the human world where people are marks and he is a player. He is infinitely complex, understanding a lot of what goes on around him, and yet also deliberately sometimes, being off the mark as to what it means. He is haunted by his own past and the slow crumble of his family around him, but has taken his boarding school and the people there as the makings of a new family with him as the head. He is slow to trust and suspicious of everything, but there is an earnestness of his character that shines through and makes you like him, even if he is sometimes a real jerk.

      The story begins with a white cat - or more specifically, Cassel sleepwalking out onto a roof, following a white cat - and he is not aware of whether it is real or in his dreams. When he awakes, hanging from the roof, everything suddenly spins into top gear for the story and in Holly Black's fashion, everything gets a kick start. In a rush, Cassel introduces himself and explains his history: normal son of a worker family - his dad is dead, his mom in jail, his brothers and he hate each other, and their mother's father seems to be the only sane (though crusty) person in the group. He talks about his experiences at school, how he is the school bookie and has a roommate that seems always impressed with him, and an ex girlfriend who is still pretty upset at his breaking up with her.

      Then he talks about Lila.

      Lilia was his best friend - the daughter of the biggest Russian gangster in NY/NJ and all around crush magnet. He also killed her. And his family helped him hide it all. Cassel treats this very strangely - he tries for bravado, tries for nonchalance when discussing Lilia, but he has all these ticks that prove otherwise - like his habit of imagining how he would kill every girl he meets just to make sure he is so disgusted with it, that he won't do it.

      Cassel is a very interesting character, and since the story is told from his point of view, we get a good glimpse into his psyche and figrue out what makes him tick. He is an interesting case study - both too smart for his own good, and too trusting of those he thinks he knows, and yet there is a growth in him from page one to the end, that you can applaud - even if it comes with a horrible price.

      In general, White Cat was a great first book to a series - it hooks you in and pulls at you until you're licking your lips, your mind racing along with Cassel, trying to piece together the mystery of it all before he can. There are plenty of clues laid, but the dramatic irony this evokes works to create more urgency in the reader instead of irritation. I highly recommend the book - and the series!


I think about the things I'm good at. And I think about Mrs. Vanderveer, my guidance counsellor. The future's going to be here sooner then you think.
Red Glove, Holly Black

Curses and cons. Magic and the mob. In Cassel Sharpe's world, they go together. Cassel always thought he was an ordinary guy, until he realized his memories were being manipulated by his brothers. Now he knows the truth—he’s the most powerful curse worker around. A touch of his hand can transform anything—or anyone—into something else.

That was how Lila, the girl he loved, became a white cat. Cassel was tricked into thinking he killed her, when actually he tried to save her. Now that she's human again, he should be overjoyed. Trouble is, Lila's been cursed to love him, a little gift from his emotion worker mom. And if Lila's love is as phony as Cassel's made-up memories, then he can't believe anything she says or does.

When Cassel's oldest brother is murdered, the Feds recruit Cassel to help make sense of the only clue—crime-scene images of a woman in red gloves. But the mob is after Cassel too—they know how valuable he could be to them. Cassel is going to have to stay one step ahead of both sides just to survive. But where can he turn when he can't trust anyone—least of all, himself?

Love is a curse and the con is the only answer in a game too dangerous to lose.

      When we left off in White Cat - Cassel's whole world was turned upside down, and though he got what he wanted - the realization that he didn't kill Lila, he also got the whole of his life questioned, altered and forever different.  It opens up, however, with Cassel reflecting on the sameness of his life - he is with his Mom, they are running cons in Atlantic City, and as usual, everything goes wrong.

      And it will get much worse before it gets remotely better.

      The difference between the first and the second book of the series all hinges on one thing: Cassel now knows that he is not a regular human born into a worker family - he now knows that he is the most powerful kind of worker, born into a family that manipulated and used him. And protected him in a way too. He still hasn't gotten a hang on how his curse works, and just how far the blow back (re. effects from using his curse) go. He still wants to return to his school and carry on with life as he imagined it - with his business as a bookie and his savings up in the library. But there is a major difference - the whole world hangs differently now for Cassel:

     Lilia's Father, the ultimate bad ass, is courting him to come work for his family.

      His Mom is increasingly emotionally unstable and out to do damage.

      He doesn't know which of his friends to trust.

      Lilia's a huge issue again.

      And now, the kicker, Phillip is dead.

      In the midst of all this, Cassel has to figure out who killed his brother - who had motive, and what that motive means - and stay away from an emotionally worked Lila - which is harder then he thinks, as she is quite the determined young woman. On top of all that, Cassel has to deal with an increasingly suspicious Baron, FBI agents who keep showing up, a Bill in NJ that may pass a Curse Worker Screening Test and the breaking up of relations between very powerful and very corrupt crime families.

      Like the first in the series, this book is fast-paced and grown up, the teenagers are strongly independent and intelligent, they pick up the pace of the narrative and fly with it, staying true to the basics of their characters, but expanding their range, playing more and more at being grown up as the chapters progress. The culmination of this, in my opinion, is the last scene in the book to feature an angry, determined Lila - who expressly illustrates how serious and mature she is in the most drastic way. 

      The book was a thrill to read and I can't believe I now have to wait forever for the last installment! Holly Black is a terrific writer with a knack for reaching into the teenaged psyche and extracting all the angst and questions and emotionally charged banter there exists and writing it down with a flare for the sarcastic. An excellent book and I cannot wait for Black Heart!

Read if you Liked:
  • Fallen by Lauren Kate
  • Tithe by Holly Black 
  • Dark Visions Trilogy by L.J. Smith

Up Next to Review: Forever by Maggie Steifvater 


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