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One highly opinionated feminist YA nerd's twisted, snarky and informative journey through the genre's perils, pitfalls and sparkles.

Review: "White Cat" by Holly Black.

“White Cat”

Author: Holly Black.

Publisher: Gollancz Fiction & Orion Publishing Group.

Pages: 310.

Synopsis (taken from GoodReads): Cassel comes from a family of curse workers — people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they're all mobsters, or con artists. Except for Cassel. He hasn't got the magic touch, so he's an outsider, the straight kid in a crooked family. You just have to ignore one small detail — he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago.

Ever since, Cassel has carefully built up a façade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his façade starts crumbling when he starts sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat that wants to tell him something. He's noticing other disturbing things, too, including the strange behavior of his two brothers. They are keeping secrets from him, caught up in a mysterious plot. As Cassel begins to suspect he's part of a huge con game, he also wonders what really happened to Lila. Could she still be alive? To find that out, Cassel will have to out-con the conmen.

Cover impressions: Holly Black is the anti-Cassandra Clare. While Black’s series has been using cover quotes from Ms Clare (a good friend of Ms Black) to promote the series, Black’s writing stands leaps and bounds beyond anything Clare has ever written and “White Cat” is a brilliant read on pretty much every level.

It’s not often these days that I’m surprised by a YA book. Maybe it’s the market itself, maybe it’s my own YA oversaturation, but whatever the case may be, when a YA comes along that I find entertaining, creative, exciting, witty and mysterious and makes it all seem so effortless, I can’t help but get excited. (The book is classified as YA by some and adult sci-fi/fantasy by others, but since it was in the YA section of my library, I’ll classify is as such.)

Even if crime based novels aren’t your thing, I highly recommend this book. Taking the concept of underground crime families and adding magic to the equation, Black has created an exciting, detailed world full of depth and intrigue, populated by a wide variety of interesting characters and genuine surprises. There’s a definite Sopranos-style vibe throughout the novel, as double crossing and black market jargon are casually discussed, but it fits in wonderfully with a well crafted and extremely readable mystery. How refreshing to see this sort of story in YA where the stakes are genuinely high and things are at true risk. The pacing is quick and smooth, even during quieter moments where Black skilfully manages to avoid turning discussions into info-dump sessions. The way the crime world is intertwined with the magic element is almost seamless and I was particularly fascinated by the different types of magic workers and how their gifts are also curses. Black’s writing style is very much suited to this type of story; it’s crisp, often sparse, very witty and avoids any sort of unnecessary visits into the town of purple prose.

The narrator of this tale, Cassel Sharp, is a joy. That sounds like an exaggeration but hear me out. One, he actually sounds like a man. Two, he manages to be tortured and scared without ever becoming whiny or overwrought, which is no easy feat. His familial interactions are interesting and never quite what they seem (The Sharps themselves are a colourful bunch, all with their own secrets and problems with so much at stake.) Three, he actually grows and develops as a character! He’s a witty, sneaky and extremely intelligent man but he’s also confused, scared and haunted by his past. His family are hiding things from him, he’s hung up on his ex-girlfriend, he’s desperately trying to con his way back into school and then there’s those dreams that plague him. Everything is handled with skill and wit. He’s definitely one of the best protagonists in YA right now. It’s also incredibly refreshing to see the small romantic element of the story not completely overwhelm the plot. It’s something that’s definitely on Cassel’s mind but he’s got other things to worry about and he knows how to prioritise! Outside of Cassel, I had a huge soft spot for his grandfather as well as his mother. She’s only featured a few times and only ever in phone call conversations but you can feel her presence throughout the book. She’s definitely the head of the clan and it shows. I can’t wait for more of her in the sequel.

If I was to criticise anything about this book, it would be this small thing. The cons are described in great detail, which is fascinating, and Cassel frequently tells us, as do many other characters, how great they are at the job, but then they immediately screw up. It got a bit repetitive but luckily didn’t spoil this wonderful book for me. I heartily recommend “White Cat” to everyone, especially those of you who, like me, were getting a sick of paranormal YA. It’s not quite an accurate label for this series but Black excels in her field with this series, creating an intricate world with intrigue, complexities and fascinating characters, and I am thoroughly excited by the prospect of getting my hands on the sequel.


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Eafiu said...

Now I have another book to find. And it's always a joyous occasion. :D

I was actually pining for a setting like this. Not just secret but actually out-of-law magic. The fact that it has a strong family element is a huge bonus also.

Looking forward to reading it!

Anonymous said...

Huh, I like the UK cover better than the American one.

I've been a fan of Holly's since reading "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and this was awesome. The fact that everyone kept screwing up their cons didn't seem to be repetitive to me, but rather a sign of they were getting too confident and doomed to fail. I need to get my hands on "Red Glove..."

Ariana said...

I loooove Holly Black. I still haven't read Red Glove yet but I'm looking forward to it. Did you read the 13 Pieces on the Curse Workers website as narrated by Lila? Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I didn't much like "Tithe" when I first read it, but Black's writing has grown on me over time. I'll have to check this out, though I must say I like the cover shown here (I'm assuming it's the UK cover) much better than the US one.

Anonymous said...

This the only other Holly Black book I've read besides Tithe (I didn't like the plot or style so I never bothered checking anything else out by her). I'm glad you wrote up this review because it pushed me to check out White Cat which I really really enjoyed!

I also just want to mention that I love your reviews! Keep it up!

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