I’ve read books by Holly Black before, namely her “Modern Faerie Tale” series: Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside. While I liked them well enough (I was all about Prince Valiant, actually), my one complaint about them was that they weren’t particularly gripping. I kept picking up Ironside and putting it back down, and it took me far longer than it should have to finish it. So when I got White Cat, the first book in “The Curse Workers” trilogy, from the library, I thought it’d be much the same. I settled down for some light reading at around three in the morning (don’t judge me) and didn’t go to sleep until six—after I’d turned the final page, found out the next book wouldn’t be out for a year, and paced around my apartment until I’d exhausted my brain into shutting up.
I’d been worried it wasn’t going to be gripping; White Cat had a grip more inescapable than a particularly vicious anaconda.
“Sometimes,” Sam says, “I can’t tell when you’re lying.”
“I never lie,” I lie.
– “White Cat”, Holly Black
The trilogy is about Cassel Sharpe, a teenager from a worker family. Workers, in this universe, are people with the power of altering others’ physical or mental traits, but not without some harmful consequences (called blowback). For example, for a death worker, killing a person might result in the loss of a tooth or finger; for an emotion worker, altering another’s emotions would result in wild mood swings. Cassel is not, to the best of his knowledge, a worker, and so he’s spent his whole life on the outside looking in—his brothers, his mother, and his grandfather are all workers. He learns how to con people from his mother, but he never gets to participate in the family business, as it were. His best friend, Lila Zacharov (also a worker), is the daughter of the crime lord for whom Cassel’s brothers work, and Cassel’s loved her since before he knew what love was. There’s only one problem: she’s dead, and Cassel’s the one who killed her.
The story focuses on the cornerstone of every YA novel: growing up. But Cassel is sorely lacking in respectable adult figures (aside from his grandfather) and as such, he has to figure out his path in life by himself. Should he work with the FBI, who want his help tracking down criminal workers like those in his family, or should he work with his own family, who want Cassel to join up with Lila’s mafia lord father? The series is full of ambiguous morals and leaves the reader with the message that perhaps there is no right choice—there is only choice.
“Lies work better when they’re simple. They usually work a lot better than the truth does. The truth is messy. It’s raw and uncomfortable. You can’t blame people for preferring lies.”
– “Red Glove”, Holly Black
The story is written entirely in first-person narration, which is rare in YA novels these days, but it works incredibly well in this trilogy, as Cassel is an engaging and entertaining narrator. It’s through Cassel’s voice that we get to see behind the mask, like being backstage to a magician. We’re never the mark. We’re always part of the con. And it’s through Cassel’s voice the other characters come to life—his fun Asian roommate, Sam Yu, whose interests in special effects complement Cassel’s cons nicely; Daneca, a workers’ rights advocate and secretly a worker herself, and of course, Lila Zacharov, Cassel’s femme fatale. Cassel’s desperate, heart-wrenching longing for Lila comes through so clearly that I felt like I’d been kicked in the chest by a Clydesdale.
“Girls like her, my grandfather once warned me, girls like her turn into women with eyes like bullet holes and mouths made of knives. They are always restless. They are always hungry. They are bad news. They will drink you down like a shot of whisky. Falling in love with them is like falling down a flight of stairs. What no one told me, with all those warnings, is that even after you’ve fallen, even after you know how painful it is, you’d still get in line to do it again.”
– “Black Heart”, Holly Black
All in all, “The Curse Workers” trilogy is a very entertaining read, excellent if you’re looking for a fantastical modern-day noir thriller with well-rounded characters of every gender and race. Cassel himself is a person of color of indiscriminate origins—he’s brown-skinned, but no one, not even Cassel, is exactly sure of where his family is from—something author Holly Black has said is intentional. But regardless of his racial origins, it’s a pleasure to see a fascinating, non-stereotypical person of color get a turn as the protagonist of this series.
Also, if you’re a fan of a good audiobook, Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network and Zombieland fame reads all three audiobooks, acts out all the voices, and turns this already-excellent series into an avalanche of awesome.
Go pick up the trilogy from a bookstore or your local library today!