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White Cat by Holly Black

White Cat by Holly Black
Book Name: White Cat
Author: Holly Black
Publisher(s): Margaret K. McElderry Books (US) Gollancz (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): YA / Paranormal / Urban Fantasy
Release Date: February 8, 2011 (US) April 1, 2011 (UK)

I rarely purchase a book on impulse – I like to study the form, as it were, to have an idea of what I’m about to get into – but this is exactly what I did with Holly Black’s White Cat. My first reason was seeing it high on the ebook best-seller list, the second was the bargain price, while the third was the fact that I share my home with a black cat. Yep, having a pet persuaded me to buy a book. Utter madness.

With its tagline “you’re only a fingertip away from another world”, I prepared myself for a portal fantasy, where our narrator hero would be thrust into that other world, perhaps learn from a wise old mentor, then save the day. I had an idea of him staying in that world to continue his adventures – this being the first book of the Curse Workers series – and right further wrongs. What I found was a book that starts with its narrator waking up on the roof of a building, about to slide to his doom, the result of a sleepwalking incident. Then, surviving this, he admits to being a murderer. He can’t remember killing the girl in question, but after finding himself stood over her with a bloody knife in his hand, he – and we – would be hard-pressed to claim his innocence.

This, then, is our introduction to the life of Cassel Sharpe, student at a high-class American college, living in a world where magic exists, but only a fraction of the population possess the ability to use it. Such people are called Workers – the Curse Workers of the series title – and their gifts mean they can pass on anything from good or bad luck, alter a person’s memory, or even cause death; in extremely rare cases, some can even re-shape flesh. All is done through touch, meaning everyone wears gloves in order to prevent it happening. The world of the Curse Workers is essentially our own, but with this magical twist – a ‘fingertip away’ indeed – yet, by setting the story in a version of the real world, the magic feels somewhat sinister and dirty, something that’s misused when it could work profound goodness.

As Cassel’s narration continues, we learn more about his family, and the relationships which become the heart of the story. He’s the only one of three brothers who isn’t a Worker – one is a lawyer, the other works for a powerful gangster – while their mother is in jail for using her powers of persuasion. Cassel worries at times that he’ll end up like her – he’s already the unofficial bookmaker at his school – but this doesn’t stop him from conning, when necessary, those he loves and cares about. On top of this, he’s finding his dreams are being haunted by the eponymous white cat, a feline that has an important message for him…

White Cat starts with a bang, grabbing the reader by the scruff of the neck. Its first-person present-tense narration means we’re in Cassel’s head right from the off; it’s not always the most comfortable place to be, but the sense of immediacy it offers allows the world of the story to unfold a piece at a time, rather than in massive infodumps, keeping curiosity piqued and maintaining the quick pace. Be warned, though; picking up the book with the intention of reading for a few minutes will soon stretch into an hour, and the final quarter had me gripped even when my eyelids were getting heavy.

There are twists aplenty, some of which are telegraphed from early in the book, while others come as complete, yet apt, surprises. The finale, which takes a turn into gangster genre without ignoring what has gone before, is masterful, still leaving the reader to wonder where certain loyalties lie as events progress to the conclusion. Although there are other books in the series, White Cat has a complete and satisfying ending; not everyone gets what they deserve, and when some do get what they want, it comes at a disturbing price

Holly Black has created a fascinating character in Cassel Sharpe, one who – despite my initial misgivings – I found myself growing to like. He’s flawed, and there are times when his actions and treatment of others are questionable, but when his secret is revealed it gives the reader genuine concern for him. His narration is vibrant and refreshing, often in short, punchy sentences that demand attention.

Despite this particular sub-genre not being part of my usual reading sphere, I found White Cat to be a page-turner of the highest order, a book that gripped me from start to finish. It appears to be marketed as a Young Adult novel, yet many of the themes (and consequences) it deals with are extremely mature, especially the twist at the end, the implications of which will sit in my mind for a long time.


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