Black Heart by Holly Black. Read by Jesse Eisenberg. This is the final book in the Curse Workers series. Cassel Sharpe is still meeting with the Feds, who are trying to get him to sign up as a permanent part of their program. His mother is hopefully just in hiding, after her botched attempt in Red Glove to seduce the governor and get him to stop anti-curse worker legislation. The love of his life, mob boss heir Lila Zacharov, has officially joined the mob herself and still hates him. When the feds have Cassel doing surveillance training with his older brother, Baron, he uses the time to track Lila. Meanwhile, back at school, his two best friends Sam and have miserably broken up, and Mina Lang, random unacquainted student, comes to him for help saying she’s being blackmailed. While he knows that she’s definitely not telling him the whole truth, he can tell that she is in some kind of bad trouble. And since new Cassel is trying to be good, he agrees to help her anyway. Then, when the Feds come to him with a job using his transformation abilities in exchange for amnesty for his mother, he agrees despite his misgivings. Being Cassel, he can’t just trust them, and his digging shows that he’s right not to. In all of the situations – his fraught relationships with his family members and Lila, his poor attempts at normal relationships with his school friends, and the problems with Mina and the Feds – he’s dealing with trying to find a difficult balance between what will work and what he considers ethical. There’s no margin of error, and people will end up dead at the worst and emotionally devastated at best. It’s deliciously noir, Cassel’s brief moments of happiness countered with almost immediate downturns, and kept from being unbearable by Cassel’s sarcastic humor. There’s also a nice character arc for Cassel as he realizes just how gray the world is.
I was very interested reading this book to see how Black would handle the essential conflict between the dark noir storyline and the general need for a teen book to have a happy ending, and was satisfied with the conclusion. It was also interesting drawing parallels between Black Heart and the other dark teen books I was reading at the same time, Maggie Stiefvater’s Forever and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. On the subject of romantic relationships: Cassel talks to the reader about how he has seen relationships with one party or the other in control, but while he thinks that an equal relationship might be possible, he’s never seen one. For Sam and Grace in Forever, equality in relationship and counting on the strengths of the other is what it’s all about. The world around them is dark and the path to being together uncertain, but the relationship when they’re together is one anyone could aspire to. And while Collins plays up the love triangle in The Hunger Games and Katniss and Peeta have the potential for a very solid relationship, it’s pretty clear that Katniss is being thrust into this whole romantic relationship thing a couple of years before she’s really ready. On families of origin, by contrast, Cassel has it marginally better than anyone in Stiefvater’s books – at least he knows that his family will always do what they think is in his best interest, even if they’re wrong, while active neglect is the best that any of the Mercy Falls teens can hope for. Katniss, of course, while she’s connected to her family, is really the adult of the family for most of the series. Note on the subject of romance that there is one scene of actual sex in Black Heart, though it’s only explicit in the use of protection. And, as previously mentioned, immediately followed by terrible events. Also, random note, they will never be able to use smart phones in Cassel’s universe, because they couldn’t use the touch screens with their gloves on. I’m pretty sure those new touch-sensitive gloves you can get now here would send their curses through them as well. Jesse Eisenberg did a competent job with the narration. He sounded a little young to me, where I’d always thought of Cassel as pretty sophisticated, but maybe it is fine for his voice to reflect his actual age. While I’m sorry to see the last of Cassel, I highly recommend this series if you’re in the mood for dark, modern magic.