White Cat is the first installment in urban fantasy series The Curse Workers by Spiderwick Chronicles author Holly Black. This is a young adult novel, although the UK version doesn’t explicitly state so, and is followed by Red Glove (April 2011) and Black Heart (to be released in April 2012).
Firstly, I have a confession to make. Although there are a number of urban fantasy series or novels that I genuinely enjoy, I am a bit of a skeptic regarding the majority of recent works in the sub-genre, especially when it comes to books aimed at the young adult market. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to White Cat in the hope of finding another gem amidst the legions of angsty teens and brooding vampires. The book certainly has an intriguing premise; the execution, however, was quite disappointing.
A fascinating concept
White Cat takes place in a world much like our own, except that a small percentage of individuals are born with the ability to work one of seven different forms of magic through touch. Their abilities range from the capacity to control a person’s emotions, dreams, luck or memory, to enhanced physical strength or even the power to transform people and objects or directly cause death. Magic practitioners are collectively known as ‘curse workers’ and, as of 1929, curse work has been strictly prohibited. The resulting magical black market creates a climate in which most young ‘workers’ are all but forced into a life of crime for one of many mafiosa-style crime lords.
Our story is narrated in the first person by Cassel Sharpe, a non-magical 17-year-old trying to get by in a family of illegal ‘workers’. Although he would like more than anything to do well at school and live a relatively average life, his attempts to distance himself from the curse working underworld are ultimately doomed to failure. He is plagued by strange dreams, haunted by a strange white cat, and his family may be keeping dangerous secrets from him. Worst of all, he is cursed with the knowledge that, although he can’t remember how or why, he killed the girl who was both his best friend and his first love when he was just 14.
White Cat promises many elements that should have made for an interesting and original urban fantasy novel: black magic, deadly secrets, a unique system of magic, an engrossing setting, and an alluring film noir feel. Unfortunately, it fails to successfully combine these elements to live up to their full potential.
One of my main complaints regarding the book relates to the worldbuilding, which I can only describe as lazy. While one might expect a rich history regarding magical prohibition and a myriad of possible issues surrounding curse working, these are explored only on a superficial level or overlooked entirely. As this is the first novel in a series, I would usually give it the benefit of the doubt with the expectation that further development would occur in later books, and this is still possible. However, the worldbuilding that was included was almost always contrived and in many cases completely transparent. Much of it consisted of overly convenient dialogues that felt tacked on and seemingly served no other purpose in the narrative. For instance, at one point we have Cassel wake up in the middle of a history lesson at precisely the moment his teacher is explaining the basic history of prohibition. Surely, if curse working is as integrated into society as Black suggests, all the students in the class would already be familiar with this concept. There is also another scene where Cassel agrees to meet the mother of one of his classmates, a strong advocate for ‘worker’ rights. In this brief meeting she handily provides him with a brief summary of the plight of magic users across the globe. I found it hard to overlook these unconvincing moments, especially when they occurred so frequently and blatantly.
Pace, atmosphere, and predictability
Furthermore, White Cat suffers from some substantial pacing problems. Very little takes place until the last third of the book where everything you’ve been expecting to happen up to this stage seems to come together all at once. That brings me to another matter, the predictability of the story. Although there are a couple of somewhat surprising developments, the majority of the plot twists in the novel are quite predictable. While this doesn’t necessarily mean the journey itself can’t be a fun ride, I was slightly disappointed and would have preferred to be genuinely surprised at least a couple of times. On the plus side, Black manages to create an absorbing atmosphere throughout White Cat, incorporating lighter moments while the overall tone verges on something darker and slightly more edgy than many young adult offerings.
A convincing yet likable conman
The protagonist, Cassel, is one of the book’s strongest points. He comes across as a convincingly flawed yet ultimately sympathetic individual who tries to be a relatively good person despite the belief that he has already committed a violent crime. I’m sure many an adolescent will find it easy to sympathize with his desire to ‘be a normal teenager’ and fit in with his peers despite feeling like a fraud and an outsider. As much as he tries to stick mostly to the ‘straight and narrow,’ a little bit of his family inevitably rubs off on Cassel. He runs a secret bookkeeping operation at his school and can’t seem to stop working the angles with everyone around him. His descriptions of ‘the con’ are believable and his viewpoint provides a unique lens through which to view the world. The other characters in the series are mostly interesting and likable enough; however, only Cassel has any real depth at this stage.
Why should you read this book?
Although there is nothing particularly mind-blowing or thought-provoking about White Cat, I’m sure this short, easy read will appeal to many readers in its target audience: young adult fans of urban fantasy. It should also be interesting enough to hold your attention for a couple of hours, as long as you don’t subject it to close scrutiny. Had I not known I was going to review this book and therefore wasn’t actively assessing its quality, I may have overlooked some of its flaws in favor of some quick, mindless entertainment. Despite my complaints, it’s not necessarily a bad book as such, and the series does have some potential. Personally, I prefer something with a little more substance and found the book promised a lot more than it delivered. Thus, after turning the last page in this story of ‘workers’ and con men, I felt a little like it was I who had been conned. All considered, there’s only one sure way to find out whether you agree with this evaluation and it involves picking up a copy of White Cat yourself. However, if you are over the age of seventeen, I might suggest borrowing it from a library first, just in case.
Michelle received a free copy of White Cat by Holly Black courtesy of Gollancz Australia.