Be careful what you ask for, being a review of White Cat by Holly Black

In the interests of honest disclosure, I should mention that Holly Black brought the first three chapters of this novel to a workshop I attended in 2007, and I loved it then. However, those chapters were significantly different from the published version, and I had not seen the book between then and when I held a printed copy in my hand.

Also, this is a caper novel, and caper novels are a dear thing to my heart. So I may not be an entirely unbiased reader.

That said, this is my favorite Holly Black book to date. Cassel, the protagonist, is the scion of a venerable family of “curse workers,” people who can manipulate such things as luck, memory, or emotions. But Cassel—a sleepwalker—has no supernatural abilities, just the knowledge that as a much younger child he murdered his best friend in a fugue state, and his family covered it up to protect him.

Curse work is illegal under a Prohibition-like set of regulations, and Black has done a nice job with the worldbuilding. Since it’s all performed through physical contact, everyone habitually wears gloves, and any relationship including the intimacy of touching comes with a freight of risk and trust. In addition, because curse work is illegal (and a misnomer—in a nod to Gardnerian Wicca, it’s easier and safer for a curse worker to bring somebody luck than cause them ill, because of “blowback”) those who practice it are driven to underground lifestyles.

Cassel’s parents, for example, were con artists in addition to being curse workers, and as our story opens, Cassel is at boarding school, his father dead, and his mother in jail. He promptly finds himself suspended due to his sleepwalking, and after some recriminations from his brothers, goes to assist his grandfather in cleaning out his parents’ house in anticipation of his mother’s eventual release.

Because his parents were hoarders, cleaning out the house is a nontrivial affair. And of course all is not as it appears, as Cassel will discover. I hesitate to delve too deeply into the affairs of the plot, because while certain plot twists will be obvious to the alert reader long before Cassel figures them out, others managed to blindside me delightfully, and Black does a good job of obscuring who is on which side of the argument and why.

The story expands from the tightly personal to eventually involve a syndicate-style curse worker crime family and a nefarious plot to control it. As is typical of Black’s novels, the heroes are scofflaws and con artists, people living on the margins of polite society and bearing little respect for it, and the narrative is true to their perspective in that it is far more interested in nuanced questions of good and evil—and the problem of self-determination in a world where other people can control one’s memories, dreams, and desires—than in what the law allows.

It’s the first in a series, and the killer twist in the last two pages makes me desperately eager to read the next one.

Elizabeth Bear feels much better about her own dysfunctional family after having read this book.


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