I’ve taken a little break from middle grade and have jumped head-first into some upcoming teen titles. This book, along with Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Ghosts of Ashbury High (review coming soon!), is among the most hotly anticipated titles of the season. I am thrilled to announce that it does not disappoint: Black is back, in a big way.
Holly Black is one of those rare birds who writes equally well in middle grade and teen. She is perhaps best known for her collaboration with Tony Diterlizzi on the Spiderwick Chronicles, which keeps being repackaged in more and more beautiful ways. Her older stuff feels authentically moody, features gritty urban settings, and moves along at a breakneck pace. This is true of her earlier titles Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside, which may have been the first mainstream teen series to portray a seedy underbelly to the Faerie , at least in the most contemporary crop of paranormal/supernatural teen books. It is also true of her new book, White Cat.
White Cat is the first book in a new series, The Curse Workers. Boy, does Black start with a bang! Cassel has been having vivid dreams about a white cat that has lead him to the brink, literally. As the book opens, Cassel wakes to find himself teetering on the roof of his private school, where he has apparently chased the cat in his dreams. Posing too much of a risk, Cassel is promptly thrown out of school and sent to stay with his family.
Naturally, Cassel’s family is wonderfully dysfunctional. His father is dead, his mother is in jail, and his two older brothers work for the powerful Zacahrov family. What they do has never been made clear to Cassel, but he’s sure it can’t be legal. Cassel comes from a family of Workers, a name given to those who have the ability to curse others with just a touch of the hand.
Black creates an entire altered history of the world, in which public opinion of Workers has vacillated between reverence and absolute fear. Consequently, magic is deemed illegal. As the book opens, most Workers have been forced to live at the margins of society, as criminals and gangsters, though there is a growing civil rights movement championing their cause. Society at large wears gloves and amulets that have been magyked (I do love irregular use of the letter Y) to absorb any curses. Black’s world building is so solid and skilled that she is able to show us the subtle differences in Cassel’s world and our own in bits and pieces that never manage to feel expository. It is a delicate balance between describing an alternate reality and showing how the characters inhabit it. Black never takes a misstep.
I particularly enjoyed the karmic concept of the blow-back, in which the worker reveals a sort of aftershock for each curse he or she performs. Black is able to use this device to explore the idea of consequence. Even those with magical abilities can’t run amok causing havoc wherever they please. There are rules and structure to her fantastical elements. The blow-back is unpredictable and dangerous, which is demonstrated in the character of the grandfather, who is a “retired” death worker and has plenty of blackened stumps where his fingers used to be (picture Dumbledore’s Horcrux-ravaged fingers in the Half-Blood Prince).
Cassel is likable, tortured, and rumpled. What more does a sixteen year old want in her male protagonists? His story is compelling and dawns on him just as it dawns on the reader. There is some sexy in the book too, featuring Black’s favourite kind of heroine: tough, streetwise and confident. By gloving them at all times, hands become exotic and highly sensual; a refreshing change from the usual suspects. There are lots of twists and betrayals and I can’t wait to see where she takes this promising new series.
White Cat will be pulished by Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of those YA geniuses, Simon and Schuster, on May 4th, 2010.