White Cat is the first in a new series called The Curse Workers, and my first time reading Holly Black. Who very much surprised me, I have to say. I think that Holly and Francesca Lia Block could be buddies; I just see a definite similar sensibility in their writing styles.
White Cat opens with Cassel Sharpe having sleepwalked out of his dormroom and onto the roof. It's actually a pretty great scene. Cassel's sharp wit and vulnerability come across in the writing immediately, and I love that he calls out for help even though he knows it makes him less manly:
"Help," I say softly, and feel crazy nervous laughter bubble up my throat. I bite the inside of my cheek to tamp it down.
I can't ask for help. I can't call anyone. If I do, then my carefully maintained pretense that I'm just a regular guy is going to fade forever. Sleepwalking is kid's stuff, weird and embarassing.
Except, once he's helped down from the roof, he's kicked out of school. It's no secret that his whole family are Curse Workers, his grandfather having been a death worker for the powerful Zacharov family. Cassel has never shown signs that he's inherited his family's worker gene, but the school thinks that maybe he's been cursed himself, on account of the shady dealings his family is associated with. Because although it is not illegal to have the ability to work, actually using your abilities to victimize others in any way is definitely illegal. Cassel's mother is in jail for this reason.
One of the coolest things about the world in White Cat is the notion and complexity of curse working. Bits of its history and rules are offered throughout the book, but there's no full-on explanation for its existence, or how some people have access to these abilities. People go around wearing gloves to protect themselves from skin contact, or if they're a worker, to show that they mean no threat to others. Traditionally a curse is transferred via the hands, and can only be countered by charms--bits of stone that have been created by workers to offer protection to the wearer:
Charms to throw off curse work, charms like the ones Audrey has hanging around her neck, are as old as curses themselves. Workers make them by cursing stone--the only material that absorbs a whole curse, including the blowback. Then that stone is primed and will swallow up a curse of the same type. So if a luck worker curses a piece of jade and wears it against her skin, and then someone tries to curse her with bad luck, the jade breaks and she's not affected. You have to get another charm each time you're worked, and you have to have one for each type of magic, but you're safe.
There's so much background info about curses and charms and how everything functions, the type of society that would grow around a world with this magic in it. Holly works * har har * this into the story flawlessly and even attempts to explain the ability to work in a scientific frame.
Getting back to Cassel's entry into the story, he tells the reader, in a Noirish way that permeates the tone of the story:
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 loved her. 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.
Lila was a dream worker and Cassel just expects that his nightmares and sleepwalking are just a part of his guilt. Until he starts digging through his family's secrets and finds out there's way more going on to Lila's death than he remembers.
One thing that surprised me about the story was that there was no main love interest theme. It's kind of about Cassel's resourcefulness and wit, regardless of not being a worker with special abilities. He's a bookie at his school and a smartass, and his comebacks are hilarious. But he's not exactly cocky. I wasn't annoyed by his personality. I was interested to see how he'd scheme his way out of the tight situations his family puts him in. He's the baby of the family and has to be the strongest because of it. His family members are nuts. Except for his grandpa, who is probably my favourite character. Here's a great exchange between them:
"I need to talk to you," I say, taking out a mug and pouring milk into it first, then adding the coffee. The milk billows up from the bottom, along with flecks of dust I should have probably checked for. "I had a weird dream."
"Let me guess. You got tied up by lady ninjas. With big hooters."
"Uh, no." I take a sip of the coffee and wince. Grandad made it ridiculously strong.
My grandfather shoves a strip of bacon in his mouth with a grin. "Guess it would have been kind of weird if we'd had the same dream."
Holly is a very strong writer when it comes to characters and dialogue. One of my favourite scenes is when Cassel goes to see Crooked Annie, a sharp, wizened fortuneteller who's real business is selling powerful charms. The dialogue is perfect, the back and forth between them. The scene is so vivid and really gives a lot of unspoken information about Cassel and his growing concern that his family is conning him.
The ending was not what I expected and was left a little up-in-the-air. There are two more books slated for the series and I can't imagine where the story will go from here. White Cat is a great choice for the dudes, too.