The Curse Workers: White Cat by Holly Black (2010)

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 (p 236).

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. His mother, now in jail where she resides for most of the book, works emotions. Philip, his eldest brother, can break your bone with a touch of his pinkie finger while the middle boy, Barron, works luck.

Cassel has no magic. He works his cons the old fashion way, but he’s still on the outside. Curse work is illegal, so every worker is a criminal. Many of them turn to crime bosses for work and acceptance. Philip has been marked by the crime boss Zacharov, whose daughter Lila is best friends with Cassel until Cassel murders her.

His memory of that event is sketchy at best, but he remembers holding the bloody knife and grinning with insane pleasure. After his brothers cover up the murder, Cassel carries the memory deep within himself as he pretends to be a normal kid at a boarding school.

This is a story with plot twists and turns, where ferreting out information is almost impossible when your narrator is as unreliable as Cassel. But Cassel is helped by a grungy white cat who helps him see truth through dreams.


Black Cat is dissident at best. The writing lacks a certain harmony and, in some cases, direction. At one point, as Cassel is trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding him, the story meanders as Cassel has to recover the white cat from an animal shelter. I understand the author needed a reason to bring in two of Cassel’s classmates, Daneca and Sam, but it was spectacularly boring for a while. In fact, the story didn’t get interesting or coherent until over 150 pages in, when Cassel begins to piece his life together.

I felt little concern for Black’s characters and little connection to her world, even after the big reveal. Cassel came across as almost apathetic himself. When he learns the truth of his life, he is less concerned with revenging himself against the wrongdoers and more concerned with saving a crime boss who would only have Cassel continue to act a criminal. I felt little empathy for Lila, whose ambitions would make her the next crime boss, or for Cassel’s brothers, whose characters are hardly explored.

The workers in general, in this story, had little or no redeeming qualities and I was therefore, apathetic to their machinations.

The remaining pages were an improvement over the start, if slightly predictable. It’s clear from the outset that Cassel will turn out to be a worker and what his ‘talent’ will be. Boy readers may find the gangster aspect of the story appealing, but frankly, I didn’t understand why such powerful workers were at the mercy of one gangster boss, nor why Cassel so easily agreed to be ‘owned’ by Zacharov in the end. It’s like all the characters are stuck in a box and with all their ‘powers,’ no one thinks to cut themselves out and beat a different path.

Suffice to say I’m not interested enough in this world to pick up Red Glove, the sequel due out in April 2011.

Here is what School Library Journal said:

Black has written a dark coming-of-age tale with a likable hero. Teens will empathize with Cassel’s desire to fit in and his occasional clashes with his family while rooting for him to unravel the conspiracy. Though readers will enjoy the fast-paced plot, there are points, particularly in the last few chapters, where the action is confusing and clarity appears sacrificed for expediency. Some secondary characters, such as Cassel’s grandfather and friend Sam, are three-dimensional, while others, including his brothers and Lila, are less well realized. Despite these minor flaws,White Cat will appeal to readers who grew up on Holly Black’s “Spiderwick Chronicles” (S & S) and are ready for something edgier.

White Cat isn’t a bad book. The writing isn’t bad and I get what Black is going for. I just didn’t enjoy it nor do I agree with its tone or message. I’m sure it will be liked by others but it wasn’t for me. It is included on Early Word’s Mock Printz list.

Read other (more positive) reviews at: Opps Wrong Cookie, Book Smugglers, The Compulsive Reader, A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy.

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