Cassel comes from a shady, magical family of con artists and grifters. He doesn’t fit in at home or at school, so he’s used to feeling like an outsider. He’s also used to feeling guilty; he killed his best friend, Lila, years ago.
But when Cassel begins to have strange dreams about a white cat, and people around him are losing their memories, he starts to wonder what really happened to Lila. In his search for answers, he discovers a wicked plot for power that seems certain to succeed. But Cassel has other ideas and a plan to con the conmen. — [X]
White Cat by Holly Black is the first book in her Curse Workers series and it most certainly fits this month’s theme of “history and memory”. Admittedly, it has more to do with the latter than the former, but it still fits. Cassel Sharpe, the youngest and most non-magical of a family of magical conmen, finds himself on the roof of his school building without a clue as to how he got there. The last time he had a memory lapse like this one, he had been standing over the bloody body of his dead best friend with a knife and an unsettling smile. Cassel wonders if the never-ending feeling of guilt may have prompted him to sleepwalk, but as the novel progresses, Cassel suspects there may be more of a connection between the two incidents.
Most of Cassel’s family are curse workers, which means Cassel knows more than other non-workers on the topic of curses, as well as on the topic of cons. Every curse comes with a price, so Cassel’s grandfather–a death worker, which is exactly as it sounds–has lost a chunk of his hand to the blowback. Cassel’s (convicted) mother is an emotions worker, often pushing rich men in sharing their love and their wealth with her … how she ended up in prison in the first place, her mark had realized he was being worked. This kind of magic makes her own emotions unstable. Cassel’s eldest brother, Philip, is a physical worker. And Cassel’s elder brother, Barron, is a memory worker. In order for curse workers to, well, work their magic they need to be able to touch their mark. In public, workers are meant to wear gloves, to keep from performing magic, but at home, they eschew the gloves in a show of trust.
But how does one trust a family of conmen? When Cassel notices that he isn’t the only one with lapses in memory, that Moira–Philip’s wife–has a similar problem, Cassel begins to wonder what game his older brothers are playing, and why they had neglected to let him in. As Cassel starts investigating and yes, okay, conning, his way into family secrets, his own past comes back to haunt him. A past he never knew he had. What he finds out, even though it comes to him as second-hand knowledge, may well dictate his choices for the rest of his life:
We are, largely, who we remember ourselves to be. That’s why habits are so hard to break. If we know ourselves to be liars, we expect not to tell the truth. If we think of ourselves as honest, we try harder.
Cassel, with his unreliable memory, his unreliable smile, and his unreliable family, makes for a very interesting protagonist. Yes, he often treats his friends and family as marks, but Holly Black writes his cons in such a way that even the readers are marks, taken in by his narrative and often taken aback by the twists and turns. This may be an adaptation of the “White Cat” fairy tale, but Black renders it almost completely new; though the many fairy tale references are cleverly woven in, this book is nothing but original. (The references to Black’s writer friends and their characters are also fun to catch!)
My one complaint is that the book isn’t diverse enough. I mean, I love Sam–Cassel’s school friend–and I’m very relieved he made it through the book, but I would’ve like more? Also, there aren’t enough major female characters. Lila is a memory, Moira is a victim and that’s all we ever see of her, Danika (WHO IS MY FAVOURITE) is a once-annoying-now-somewhat-okay friend that only shows up when Cassel needs something (though it isn’t exclusively a female thing), and Cassel’s mother is–along with her eldest sons–more an antagonist than a supportive family member. None of these women seem to get along with each other or with other women.
Unrelated, but also a negative: I don’t really recommend the audiobook. Jesse Eisenberg was chosen to sound the part of young Cassel Sharpe, but after a while his voice becomes monotonous and unexpressive. Those last chapters grated on my soul.
In the positives column, it’s Holly Black. Her world-building is meticulous as ever, her twists are twisty, her writing is sharp and witty, and the way she deals with memory and it’s many effects on her characters is incredibly smart and nuanced. If you like mafia movies, conmen stories, or fantasy in urban-ish settings, you’ll enjoy this one. Also, obviously, if you like Holly Black. It’s always a bit of a risk, I feel, visiting author’s older works when you loved their latest ones, but this one isn’t bad at all. Recommended!