Black Heart, the third and final novel in Holly Black’s “The Curse Workers” series, picks up with Cassel Sharpe where the second book (Red Glove) left off: he’s playing several long games, trying to stay one step ahead of the teeth nipping at his heels, and in intense conflict with himself as he tries to define his sense of ethics in a crooked, complex world where no one is particularly a “good guy.” Lila Zacharov, his closest friend and the woman he loves, is still furious with him; he’s working with the Feds, alongside his brother Barron; his mother has been caught attempting to con a major politician and is on the run; the national politics about the treatment of hyperbathygammic people have begun to turn toxic.
Black Heart is juggling a large number of conflicts, double-dealings, and consequences of decisions made in the previous two novels, but Black manages the shifting, twisting plots with seemingly effortless panache. This book is a tight, fast-paced, satisfying conclusion to one of the more fascinatingly dark, layered YA series I’ve had the pleasure to read.
The “Curse Workers” books, capped by Black Heart, are some of the sharpest, leanest urban fantasy novels I’ve read in some while, and they embrace an ethical ambiguity that I adore. I had worried that the ambiguity might slip in the conclusion—it’s difficult to end a YA with the protagonist deciding to become an assassin for a crime family, after all—but Black, in a delightful spin of the narrative, crafts an ending that makes clear the realization that Cassel has been working toward throughout these novels: there’s no such thing as a good person or a bad person, just a person who makes necessary choices.
In many ways these books tell a coming-of-age story, but for Cassel that involves some very different decisions than it does for most teens, including his “normal” friends Sam and Daneca, who he chooses to leave behind in the end. Would he rather work for the FBI or the Zacharov family, or run away entirely, shift into someone else, anyone else? A normal life isn’t an option. Black makes it abundantly clear through the climax and the double-cross that the FBI were playing against Cassel—and we’re never entirely sure whether or not that was as bad as it seemed to be—that there are no black-and-white choices to be made. There are no good guys, and Cassel is who he is: a son of the Sharpe family, a con artist, a transformation worker, and an occasional killer. His decision to embrace himself and to try to make good choices for the right reasons, whether or not those choices are the socially acceptable ones, was not the easy way out of the story—but it was the only way that was real.
Cassel’s reconciliation with Lila was handled in a way that I found realistic and satisfying as well. Lila is my other favorite character in these novels, a powerful young woman who makes her own choices about who she loves, who she respects, and what she’s willing to do. Her anger over Cassel’s decision to “protect” her from herself and her refusal to forgive him until he understands how badly he’s fucked up are just plain great characterization. The sex scene in this novel is working on several levels, but mostly to elucidate the tension and give-and-take of power between Lila and Cassel. She is not a swooning girl to be rescued: she’s a young woman who makes concrete decisions about her body, her desires, and her relationships. (The efficacy of Black’s subtle world-building throughout the series is also clear here; Cassel’s kissing of Lila’s bare fingers is as intensely sensual as anything else in the scene, for the show of trust that we understand it to be.)
The word that I would use to describe Black Heart overall has already come up several times: satisfying. I mean it with the most positive connotations possible. Ending a series on the right note, leaving enough unsaid and enough solved, with the thematic arc of the entire work intact, is a high-wire act—”the big score,” as Cassel describes a complicated, dangerous, massive-payoff job. And, while that short conversation between Cassel and Sam comes near the middle third of the novel, it’s evocative of the choices that he will make in the end. When describing cons, Cassel explains:
“That’s why the big score is a myth. A fairy tale. Because no one ever quits after a successful job. They get stupid and cocky and think they’re invulnerable. They convince themselves to do just one more time, just this last time. And then the time after that, because if a job goes sideways, then you want to do another to get the taste of failure out of your mouth. And if it goes well, you do another to chase that feeling.” (147-48)
Sam asks him if he feels that way also, and while he denies it, saying that he’s going straight and working with the FBI, the novel ends with he and Lila driving away to disappear for awhile together, abandoning their possible “normal” lives—high school diplomas, no crime, no danger, no magic. The final lines of the novel, lines that rings with particular evocative strength considering this prior passage, are:
“Her gloved hand turns the wheel sharply, and I feel the giddy rush that comes only at the end of things, that comes when, despite everything, I realize that we actually got away with it.
The big score.” (296)
The FBI and the government at large will be on Cassel’s tail; plus, he’s effectively joined up with the Zacharov family after all to be with Lila, who has no intention of giving up her birthright—and the big score is a myth, because no one ever quits.
That, right there, is a wonderful ending, uncomfortable in its implications but ecstatic at the same time. As a reader I was left feeling giddy as well, pleased with Cassel and Lila’s choices, though they’re hardly the morally upright options. It takes a certain amount of skill to make crime families and ethically questionable choices sympathetic, but Black nails it.
I will say that I don’t advise beginning the series with this book. Of course, I never advise reading a series out of order—but in this case, the stakes that have built over the course of the two prior novels are immediately important to the conflicts and conclusions in Black Heart. However, for those who have read the prior novels, this book delivers. I hate to trot out the tired old review truism, but: if you’re already a fan of this series, why are you still here instead of reading the novel, and if you’re not—you probably will be, once you check these books out. Whether it’s the world-building, the family politics, the relationships, the magic, the intrigue, the danger or the moral ambiguity, Black Heart doesn’t simply follow in the footsteps of the prior novels but builds on them and wraps the series up with a satisfying but not easy or simple conclusion.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.