Holly Black

The Curseworkers Book 1

Gollancz (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-575-09671-4

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

It’s not often you find out on page eight of a book that the narrator has murdered someone, and that you’re still meant to find him a totally engaging and sympathetic character – after first being introduced to him on top of a roof, sleepwalking. But that is exactly the case with the teenaged Cassel Sharpe.

Cassel lives in a world where magic is real, but it has been prohibited since 1929 – making any magic workers, like Cassel’s family, criminals. The thing is, Cassel isn’t himself a magic worker, so not only does he have to deal with his family engaging in criminal activity, he also has to deal with being an outsider. As most of us probably remember, being an outsider as a teenager is horrendous – bad enough at school, often even worse when it’s within your own family.

Black achieves that wonderful blend that makes YA, in particular, glow: a fast-paced narrative that doesn’t make you confused but keeps a steady, intriguing pace, matched with complex characters and relationships. The plot flutters easily from amusing high-school standard pranks to much more sinister, threatening events; after all, imagine if the Mafia were largely the group in control of magic. The relationships, too, vary from complicated peer-friendships to even more tangled family ones. One of my favourite characters was Grandad; one moment typical doddery old man, the next domineering curse-working patriarch.

Cassel, of course, is at the heart of the story. Black creates a very believable young man, balancing his remorse at the murder of his friend with the mundane struggles of teenager-dom and the very real difficulties of a highly-strung family. I think he works particularly well because Black never lets him slip either into self-indulgent whinging nor gung-ho machismo. His story has elements of the classic coming-of-age story, as he learns about himself and his world, and how not to be entirely self-reliant. He keeps a fairly light-hearted tone throughout, even when dealing with very serious issues, but this doesn’t come across as flippant. Rather, it’s evidence of Black wanting to deal with such issues, but not wanting to totally depress her readers. It’s something that I appreciate in much YA writing.

This is the first of a series, apparently; I intend to grab the sequels just as soon as I can.