Jan. 2nd, 2011

coraa: (bookworm)
Starting my book-every-couple-days resolution off right...

White Cat (Curse Workers, Book 1), by Holly Black

Cassel Sharpe grew up in a family of workers—people with the inborn (and, in the USA, illegal) ability to perform magic on others by touching their hands to their target's bare skin—but he himself is no worker. His mother is in jail for using her emotion working ability to scam a rich man; his grandfather is a retired death-worker, with half his fingers missing due to blowback from the killings he's done; his brothers work for one of the crime families that both use and protect curse workers. But Cassel's attempt to live a normal life is destroyed when a white cat invades his dreams, literally, leading him to sleepwalk up onto the roof of his boarding school. And worse. It doesn't help that Cassel himself, though not an illegal curse worker, nonetheless has a history that includes a really horrific crime.

It's a noir con artist story, based on a comparatively obscure fairy tale, with alt history and magic and great worldbuilding! What's not to like?

I really enjoyed this book, and a big part of that is because of the setting. There's a lot of urban fantasy that uses the trope 'our world, but magic,' but Black's take (entirely lacking in weres and faeries and vampires) is fresh and interesting—even 'magic is illegal,' not itself a new idea, goes in some directions I hadn't seen before. In this alternate US, not just alcohol but also magic-working was made illegal in the 1920s; unlike alcohol, the criminalization of working was never lifted. Accordingly, by the 'present' of the story, magic is almost entirely in the hands of organized crime families. Everyone wears gloves all the time (except with trusted intimates), because bare hands are as plausible a threat as an unsheathed knife.

The characters were as well-realized as the setting, even though most of them were pretty unlikeable. (I did like Cassel and his friends, and a couple of others, but mostly the cast is a bunch of nasty folk—which I actually appreciated: it undercut the all-too-common fantasy trope of your thieves and assassins who all conveniently have hearts of gold.) They were all solid and believable, and even when they occasionally did stupid things they had plausible motivations.

But mostly I thought the plot was very good, half caper (Cassel's family were all curse workers, but even more fundamentally, they were all con men and women) and half mystery, with a strong dose of magic. If I hadn't known from Holly Black's talk at Sirens, I wouldn't have realized this was a fairy tale retelling, because the feeling of it is more noir, or possibly heist film, or both. It's one of those books where the twists and turns made me think both, "Wow, I didn't see that coming!" and "Oh, but of course!" at the same time, which is quite a trick and also very satisfying to read.

In retrospect, this is a pretty dark book, but it didn't feel dark in the reading, if that makes sense. Nasty things happened, and things happened that made me cringe for Cassel, but in a way that was exciting and compelling, not that made me feel flattened by the Cement Truck of Grim.

This is one of those books that I am glad I wasn't spoiled for, so I'll put my further thoughts under a spoiler cut.

Spoilers pull a fast one on you )

Anyway, highly recommended. Especially if you like stories about con men, or noir, or just urban fantasy with an original and interesting setting. The second book's coming out next year, and I can't wait (but this story ends at a place where I didn't feel like I'd gotten cliffhangered, which I also like).

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