Monday, 23 July 2012

White Cat - Book Review

White Cat, by Holly Black, tells the story of Cassel Sharpe, a teenage boy from a family of curse-workers. Cassel has always felt alienated, neither curse-worker nor ‘normal.’ His mother is in prison, his brothers either absent or indifferent, his father dead, and the fellow boarders at his school mistrustful. Worse than this, he lives with a terrible secret and struggles every day to face the crushing guilt it causes. When he begins sleepwalking and a strange white cat visits him in dreams, he starts to unravel a sinister plot, as well as some shattering truths about his family and his past.

White Cat is a dark, witty and entertaining story set in an alternate universe in which a form of magic known as ‘curse-working’ exists openly. Those who can’t curse-work are suspicious of those who can, and the curse-workers are considered dangerous – little more than criminals. Laws have been put in place prohibiting curse-work, which do not distinguish between the bad (killing, injury, manipulating memory, etc) and the good (bestowing good luck, using emotion-work to help heal people, etc). This means that the curse-workers are often manipulated or threatened into a life of crime, or driven into it by desperation.

There are strong parallels between the 1920’s Prohibition (of alcohol) in the United States and the ban on curse-work in this book. In Holly Black’s world, curse-working crime families have emerged and grown. They are now extremely powerful, virtually unstoppable, and will do whatever it takes to get their way. Cassel’s own family is inextricably wound up with the Zacharovs, one of the main crime families. These details help the story feel like it could be part of our world. It also encourages interesting debate about freedom and the rights of the individual.

The crime families and the parallels with Prohibition also give the book the feeling of a dark, noir-like fantasy, mixing this with a modern day setting, clever cons, and magic. The teenage narrator, his worries, and his identity issues are very YA. It’s like a noir-meets-heist-meets-urban-fantasy-meets-magic-meets-coming-of-age-YA. I love anything even slightly cross genre, so this was fantastic. Holly Black weaves all these different ideas and styles together in a very capable way, never letting the tone or themes become lost. The writing is also very good. The pacing was sometimes a little shaky, however, and the story itself didn’t grab me as much as I would have liked. There were points that dragged a little (side characters and school), with a time-jump towards the end that felt somehow out of place. High points included various twists and turns throughout the story, and a very exciting ending. The steady drip of revelations about what has actually been going on in Cassel’s life are both intriguing and horrifying, helping to lift what could have been a very standard story into something much better and more memorable.

At points the main character, Cassel, came across as a little weak and passive. He seems to have let himself be used and manipulated on several occasions, and he happily lets the girl he loves boss him around. After a while, however, I realised that this is exactly why I was growing so fond of Cassel. He has quite a unique personality for a male hero, or in fact for any hero in this kind of story. His love interest actually has the more traditional ‘hero’ personality type. Cassel has moments of being very unsure, of despairing, of dithering over the best course of action to take. He sometimes gets things wrong. He doesn’t immediately turn to violence or aggression to solve a problem. He is attracted to the girl he loves because she is so strong and confident. He likes being bossed around, partly because he trusts her and is willing to accept that he needs her help. Due to his trust issues with almost everyone else, this is actually very touching. I liked the dynamic between these characters, and really believed in Cassel’s feelings for her. Cassel’s slightly unusual personality also helps to make him a more realistic and well-rounded character, as well as a very refreshing one.

I find it harder to say whether Cassel is actually likeable or not. The same goes for she-who-must-not-be-named-for-fear-of-spoilers. I’m not sure I would want to be friends with either of them in real life. The shady hints of what Cassel might have done in his past could be enough to put some readers off, as well as his tendency to be a little selfish (probably more a survival tactic, though this does begin to change towards the end of the book). There are some points where his priorities seem a little skewed, and others where he is on the verge of feeling too sorry for himself. However, he is kind and caring, well-meaning, intelligent and brave. He picks up on things quickly, so the reader doesn’t have to spend half the book yelling at him for not seeing what’s in front of his nose. He has a sense of what is fair and right, and is uncomfortable with the idea of manipulating others for his own gain (ironic, for a conman). He is a very interesting narrator, and though perhaps not always exactly likeable, he is sympathetic, and it would be impossible not to root for him. In fact, he’s a good example of why the main character does not always have to be likeable in a story.

I enjoyed White Cat. It has a lovely, dark, noire-ish feel to it, but at the same time is very new and fresh and quirky. The world and the characters really stand out, sometimes more so than the story. I appreciated the non-standard, non-clich√© personalities, and enjoyed the clever use of an ‘unreliable narrator’. I loved the happy-yet-conversely-really-quite-depressing ending that suited the themes of the book so well. I also really liked the author’s new spin on ‘magic in modern day.’ Looking forward to reading the next ones!

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