Holly Black

Curse Workers, Book 1

Gollancz (2010)


Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts, Syndicated July 2010

Cassel is the only member of his family who isn’t a curse worker. That means he’s the only one who isn’t a criminal. Except for the fact that he killed his best friend Lila three years ago, and still doesn’t remember why…

Now he’s sleepwalking, his school is trying to kick him out, his family is paying way more interest in him than they ever have, and he’s not altogether sure he can con his way out of this one.

And then there’s the cat.

I’ve always enjoyed Holly Black’s work, though rarely out-and-out loved it. Before now, my favourite of hers was the story “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” which was one of the cleverest vampire reimaginings I’ve come across in a while. The White Cat, however, is utterly brilliant. A dark, pacy read, it just kept twisting in on itself in ways I didn’t see coming.

Cassel himself is a very likeable and sympathetic character though everything about his personality and history should really not be that endearing – he has that in common with Nick of Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon and to a lesser extent Cameron from Libba Bray’s Going Bovine. Cassel is not a joiner, doesn’t make friends, doesn’t really respect anyone and oh yes, there’s that little thing of a murder in his history, and yet he is charming and earnest and bit by bit is managing to become a better person. I am very much looking forward to the future Curse Worker books (which I assume are coming as this one is marked Book 1 – it has a proper end, though) in order to spend more time with him.

If Veronica Mars was a boy and a con artist and a member of a family in servitude to a major crime boss, and had several morally-dubious male relatives, and had killed somebody when she was thirteen, this book would be just like season one. Possibly that analogy only makes sense to me. Moving right along…

I also really liked the women in this book. Cassel’s mother, speaking to him (and attempting to control him) only from prison, is a fully rounded if deeply disturbing individual. Everything we learn about her makes it all the more surprising that Cassel is as together as he is. Cassel’s recently former girlfriend Audrey and his new friend Daneka are both appealing and interesting characters when they appear on the page, which isn’t that often. Then there’s Lila, the most vivid female presence in the book, a proud and crazy mob boss’s daughter, and the way that her history with Cassel unfolds through his memory.

This book actually is all about memory, and how much of our identity is tied up with it, and what could happen if someone screwed so severely with yours that it made you a different person.

It’s also about history – in this world, all “magic” is referred to as cursework, it had been illegal since Prohibition and has negative connotations though some of it could be quite neutral or beneficial and as with everything else that is illegal, that means that only the criminals have access to it. Black paints a dark world of organised crime families, and everyone wearing gloves to make themselves “safe”, a world where you rarely see the bare hands of anyone you’re not related to.

Cassel’s love for his family and his isolation from them are both powerfully told, and even when the story has reached its breakneck crescendo, there’s still one more twist to the knife. Holly Black is a very, very mean lady.

Now I not only want to read the next Curse Worker book featuring Cassel (they will feature Cassel, right, right?) I also want to read the spin off series (that may be entirely inside my head, or IS IT?) set in Australia, which was of course founded by a colony of curseworkers, and thus has a much higher percentage of the population wielding magic. Come ON, it was mentioned more than once as “background,” that makes it a gun on the table that has to be used, right? Right?