Cassel Sharpe is having trouble staying asleep. He’s from a family of Curse Workers, individuals with manipulative powers everyone at some point in their life imagines having—the ability to influence luck, emotions, or memory, to name a few. With so much of this kind of magic in his genes, it’s a wonder he doesn’t have any abilities whatsoever. Left in the dark about family secrets and packed away to Wallingford Preparatory school, Cassel is resentful. He’s also learned to make due.
While his family associates themselves with one of the biggest Worker families—alternate history mobsters—and turns to one con after the next, Cassel’s learned all their tricks the old-fashioned way with wit, a little acting, and some impressive prestidigitation. He’s more than ready to prove himself worthy of their secrets, especially of the things that only other Workers are supposed to know. Insomnia is only making his life more miserable. But before he can do anything about it, he has to figure out how to get off the roof without getting hurt.
Holly Black’s new series, The Curse Workers, is a fantastical mixture of history and magic with the delinquent air of organized crime. It’s also told from a very convincing male point of view. Not being male, I can’t judge the validity of anything Cassel does or thinks in terms of innate-maleness (whatever that is), but I enjoyed it. In Cassel’s reality, a fraction of the world’s population are born with mysterious abilities notoriously known as curses. They’re the people who always seem to win at everything or are the most charming individuals. They’re cunning con artists, deviously tricking the populace, some part of the big Worker families established in the 1930s, some not.
Most don’t even engage in that kind of corruptive behavior; most want to be left alone, above the suspicious eyes of distrusting and prejudiced individuals jaded into believing all Workers are bad seeds. There’s an underground economy of curses for those wanting to protect themselves from others or wanting small second hand powers to use to their advantage. Unfortunately for law-abiding and empowered citizens, the authorities and certain anti-Worker factions tend to notice the killers-for-hire and ignore the small, innocent manipulations that do more good than harm.
When the “bad guys” of society are so powerful, it creates a huge dichotomy between their “good” counterparts—not to mention, both groups incite untalented individuals to passive longing and jealousy. Everyone knows about Curse Workers, everyone wants to be a Curse Worker with the kind of naiveté developed from romanticizing what one doesn’t have. As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side. The sociopolitical commentary here was unexpected, but is a grounded reaction to the foundation of the magic: some have it, some don’t—jealousy and suspicion are quick to follow. Not to spend so much time talking about the world Cassel lives in, but it was one of the most imaginative and compelling parts of the book. It’s clever and within the realm of believability in the same way the wizarding world was for Harry Potter. People want to have this curious magic (readers can marvel at the possibilities), even Cassel. People also harbor unabashed fear toward Workers.
One major downside, aside from being made to feel like a threat, is curse work was banned around the same time as Prohibition. Prohibition ended; the ban on curse work was not lifted. It’s because of the ban that everyone is forced to cover their hands in public and wear gloves. People eat with gloves, they shake hands with gloves, they play sports with gloves. Curses can only pass from individual to individual with skin contact—in this way, the gloves make sense. It’s practical, if a bit unsanitary when one stops to consider how ridiculous it would be to wash your gloves before eating, especially after you’ve worn them all day touching who knows what else. Ick factor aside, gloves are the great equalizer, or so the government likes to think. If everyone is wearing gloves, no one can theoretically abuse their abilities; non-curse workers and curse workers alike can live side by side without the distinction elevating one above the other—or causing unnecessary alarm and panic. People with abilities often times pretend to ignore what makes them different, ironically making life more difficult for them when all they want is to live easier.
Really cool world-building aside: White Cat is an impressive and entertaining read. It’s so good I already want to re-read it because I’m positive I missed something. The narrative is complex as Cassel’s investigations progress to reveal a strange and unreal conspiracy. There’s mystery and suspense beyond wondering what’s causing his sleep walking or the strange dreams of a fluffy white cat that do nothing but cause him trouble. Sure, there’s nothing glamorous about life as the only non-Worker in a family filled with them, but Cassel has his own fun.
Release Date: May 4, 2010
Reviewed Format: Advance Reading Copy provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books