White Cat by Holly Black The more I read of Holly Black, the more a couple of themes come across: Magic is real and scary. Family is not to be trusted. This book is set in a slightly different modern-day than her other books. Teenaged Cassel wakes up on the snowy roof of his boarding-school dorm room, knowing that his cover is blown. He’s been trying to pass for normal, even though he comes from a family of curse workers, all of whom work for one of the big five crime families. Cassel himself isn’t a worker, but con games are in his blood. Even lying low at boarding school – trying to escape some truly dark memories – Cassel is supporting himself as a bookie, running betting schemes all over the school. Now that the school sees him as a danger to himself, he’s sent to stay with his family until he can get a doctor’s consent to go back home. Once with his family again, the plot thickens. His oldest brother, a strong man for the crime family, is clearly up to something, and his young wife is suffering from some kind of spell. His next oldest and favorite brother is losing large amounts of his memory – is someone doing memory work on him, or is he doing such large amounts of memory work that the blowback is tearing holes in his own memory? All magic is called cursing here, and all the magic Cassel sees is used for cursing, controlled by the crime families ever since it became illegal shortly after Prohibition. Then, at his mother’s house (abandoned until she gets out of jail), he finds a white cat, the same white cat that he was following in the dream which ended up with him on the roof. In the dream, the cat’s name was Lila, the same name as his childhood best friend, the daughter of the head of the crime family; Lila, around whom his terrible memories center. Cassel needs to figure what is going on, and decide if there is anyone he can trust or if there is such a thing as real friendship. The plot is full of twists in the main plot, and has some nice subplots as well. The overall tone is dark and sarcastic, the plot fast-moving, and Cassel a likeable character despite his repeated assurances to the reader that he is not a good person. Fans of Holly Black’s other work will enjoy this, of course. The urban setting calls to mind Charles de Lint, though Black’s work is less dreamy and much faster paced, while the crime world fantasy is reminiscent of Stephen Brust’s Jhereg series, but less comedy than some of those works. It’s good stuff, and the cover makes it look like there will be more.
The only really annoying part was the cover – which looks fine on its own, until you read the descriptions of Cassel in the text, where he is described as definitely not white of indeterminate origins. That pretty boy on the cover looks lily-white to me, another frustrating example of covers being whitewashed on the theory that dark skins don’t sell.