I think one of the best things about participating as a judge in the Cybils this year is that I’ve read some good books I would otherwise not have picked up on my own. White Cat is one of those (its sequel, Red Glove, is a Cybils finalist).
Cassel Sharpe lives in a world where certain people have the ability to perform curses – death workers can kill people, memory workers can erase or modify memories, emotion workers can create false emotions in others, and so on. Curse working is illegal, which has led to the formation of a mafia made up of curse workers. Not all curse workers are bad people, but this mafia certainly does bad things, much like our own world’s magic-free mafia does.
Cassel is the only member of his family who isn’t a curse worker, and he’s of two minds about it. He’d really like to distance himself from his family, almost all of whom work for the Zacharov crime family, but at the same time, he wants to be accepted by them, which he’s sure will never happen.
Cassel’s lack of ability isn’t his biggest problem, though. No, that would be Lila Zacharov, Cassel’s best friend and the daughter of the crime boss. The problem with Lila is that Cassel killed her – on accident, of course. His two older brothers covered for him, but as you can imagine, Cassel is more than a little torn up about it.
So that’s the background, and I feel like you get the gist of what the story is like if you know at least that much, plus the fact that this is, at heart, a story about con artists and their cons. I’ve always loved stories about con jobs and heists and other trickery where the reader roots for the lawbreaker. More than anything else, they are just plain fun, and sometimes that’s just what I need in a book. (Ally Carter’s Heist Society books are great for this.) The characters are untrustworthy, the cons are creative and clever, and the story is fast paced. All three of these things put together means that there’s always a surprise lurking behind the next page.
Combining a con story with magic works well in White Cat. It’s one of those stories where I didn’t feel like the magic was a cheat to get the characters out of scrapes. In many cases, the magic could actually make things worse. One of the most important aspects of curse-working is the blowback:a curse-worker performs a curse, and a part of that power rebounds back at the caster. Magic backlash is certainly not a new concept, but I like how Black implemented it here, particularly with the death workers. (Cassel’s grandfather, a death worker, is missing fingers.)
It reminded me a little bit of All These Things I’ve Done – fictional mafia, a hint of the fantastic, and the teen caught up in it – but White Cat is more overtly a fantasy. The stakes also seem a bit higher in White Cat. Obviously I can’t say too much without giving things away, but I can say that Black is not afraid to let her good characters do bad things, and this includes Cassel. (Her bad characters and her neutral characters do bad things too, naturally.)
I wouldn’t call the writing outstanding, but it does the job of telling the story and gives Cassel a good voice – I believed him as a teenager in that position, and I appreciated his self-deprecating, gallows-esque sense of humor.
There’s a pretty big worldbuilding hole that another reader pointed out to me after I had read the book. I can’t share it without spoiling a major plot point, but I will say I was completely oblivious to it until I was told about it. Which is not to say it’s unimportant; worldbuilding is always important in a fantasy novel. But it certainly doesn’t ruin the enjoyment.