Curse workers -- they can change luck, emotions, dreams and even more just by touching your skin. And since curse work is illegal, they work as con artists or part of mob families.
Having sparked off the teen-girl-encounters-faerie-world craze, Holly Black easily slips into a very different kind of urban fantasy in "White Cat," the first book in the Curse Workers series. The idea is a pretty simple one, but Black twists and knots it into an elaborate, many-shaded fantasy story, with plenty of blood, mystery and magic.
Years ago, Cassel Sharpe killed his best friend Lila -- he doesn't know why or what happened, but he knows he did. And after Cassel sleepwalks onto a roof (and into Youtube fame), he ends up suspended from his school and back in the junk-filled family mansion. As he waits to get back in, he encounters a white stray cat hanging around the barn -- the same cat that has been in his dreams recently.
Other strange clues begin to crop up: a memory charm, strange behavior from his sister-in-law, and the gaps in his own memory. Little by little, Cassel begins to realize that the cat is Lila -- someone with the rarest kind of power has transformed her into a cat, and to change her back he'll have to find out who it is. But as he tries to figure out who transformed Lila and why, he discovers the secrets that have been painstakingly removed from his own head -- and the elaborate, deadly scheme that he's being forced into.
It's pretty obvious from the beginning of "White Cat" that there is more going on than meets the eye, and Holly Black spends most of the book delicately unwinding the various tangled schemes and secrets. The world she conjures up is pretty much like our own, except that there are some people who have magical powers -- it's gritty, prejudiced, and has some real dangers for Cass.
She also comes up with some pretty cool ideas, such as the curse work -- by touching your skin, the workers can instantly break your bones, manipulate your memories, enter your dreams and even transform your body. Fortunately, the "blowback" keeps the workers from seeming all-powerful.
And Black's prose slips onto the story like a worn leather jacket -- the story is gritty, grimy and jaded, and there's always shadows lurking around the corner. But there's a raw beauty to it, especially during scenes like Cass's "pebble" ritual. And she threads the story with the luminous, bright flashbacks of Cassel's time with Lila (think golden cat-globes, ear-piercing and vintage movies). The dialogue is snappy and darkly humorous, and Black knows how to add twists you'll never see coming.
Cassel is that rarest of characters -- a teenage anti-hero. He's a likable, pleasant kid who dislikes the amoral con jobs and brutal mob work that his family engages in, but he also has a weakness for a brilliant lie or a little clever gambling. He's perfectly matched with the luminously quirky Lila, who hangs over the book like DuMaurier's Rebecca (although not as evil or absent).
"White Cat" is a clever and unique urban fantasy, with some shocking twists and a grimy, dark atmosphere -- definitely Holly Black at her best. Can't wait to see what happens with the Curse Workers next.