Monday, June 8, 2015

White Cat (The Curse Workers #1) by Holly Black

 Spoilers Ahead, You Have Been Warned

Cassel comes from a family of workers.  By workers, I mean workers of magic.  His grandfather can kill people with a single touch, his mother has the ability to affect peoples emotions, his oldest brother can rearrange the bodies of others, easily breaking a limb and his other brother Barron, has the ability to affect people's luck - or so Cassel believes.  That's a very magical family to be born into and as luck would have it, Cassel has no powers to speak of.  He's a great con man and even acts as a bookie at his private high school.  The only thing Cassel knows for sure is that he has murdered his best friend and the girl he loves most of all.  The thing about memories, is that in a world where memories can be altered, how do you know what's true and what isn't?  When Cassel's memories start to unravel, he realises that there is more to his family than he realises.

As a protagonist, Cassel is just an average teenage boy who comes from a very dysfunctional family.  He doesn't really know how to relate to people and tries to act the way he perceives people want him to act.  Everywhere he goes, the legacy of his family's criminal activity as workers follows him.  At the end of the day, all Cassel really wants is to blend in and try to forget Lila's death.  Cassel isn't particularly intelligent but is always working some kind of angle trying to end up ahead.

Cassel's insecurity was perfect for his age and the fact that his family is so dysfunctional.  What I didn't like is that Cassel is secure in the belief that blood is thicker than water.  Family is absolutely important but there are times, and most certainly in Cassel's case, where turning your back and walking away from family is an act of self preservation.  Considering the myriad of ways in which his family lied to him, used him, abused him and even almost turned him into a rapist using magic, Cassel's response is absolutely ridiculous and utterly naive. I am forced to believe that Black wrote Cassel's forgiveness for the sole purpose of having a hook to continue this series, even though it means sending the message that no matter what a family member does, we have to forgive them.

There is a small strain of romance running through White Cat because much of the story deals with what happened to the dead Lila - the girl Cassel loves.  The romance never overtakes the story and just sort of runs in the background.  There really aren't any convoluted love triangles, which as far as I am concerned, are far too common in YA urban fantasy.  Cassel's relationships with women comes down to trying to figure out what it means to be a good boyfriend, what it means to be a good friend and dealing with his domineering mother. 

As aforementioned, the main female character in White Cat is Lila.  At the very beginning of the novel, I very much believed that she would be the typical damsel in distress in need of saving. Black completely stomped on that stereotype and had Lila be assertive and calculating.  Lila is all too aware that in a crime family, her gender works against her and no matter what she has suffered, Lila is determined to get her revenge and rule her family one day.  Being a kid, her big plan is a touch ridiculous but Black makes it work in the end.  Had Lila's part of the story ended there, I would have been satisfied.  Unfortunately, Lila is touched by Cassel's mother and since she can work emotions, Lila is made to feel madly in love with Cassel, taking away her ability to consent.  Black made it clear that this is a violation and absolutely wrong but it still ended up turning Lila into a victim in the end and I really could have done without that.

There is only one character of colour to speak of in White Cat and that is Sam Wu.  Sam, is Cassel's roommate who takes over the bookie business when Sam get thrown out of school for sleep walking.  Sam is incredibly smart, drives a hearse he has converted to run on bio-disel and wants to get into special FX for a living, though his parents have completely different plans for him.  Sam is Cassel's model of what it looks like to be a good friend and therefore always seems to be there at Cassel's beck and call.  I can think of only one instance in White Cat of Cassel helping Sam, instead of it being the other way around.  Unfortunately, much of Sam's inclusion in the story pulls the reader away from the over arching mystery.  I wish Sam had been better integrated into the plot and hope that changes in the second book of this series.

Like many books in this genre, White Cat is overwhelmingly White.  It is also completely erased in terms of LGBT people. Disability only seems to occur as a consequence of over using one's ability to work.  White Cat could have have been a lot more inclusive than it is.  The only time oppression is brought up is in connection to workers. 
“The thing is that it’s really hard to stop discrimination when something’s illegal,” the girl says. “I mean, everybody thinks of workers as being criminals. Like, people use the word ‘worker’ to mean criminals. And, well, if we work a work, even once, we are criminals. So most of us are, because we had to figure it out somehow and that was usually by making something happen.”

“And there are lots of workers who never do anything bad. They go to weddings and hospitals and give people good luck. Or there’s people who work at shelters and they give people hope and make them feel confident and positive. And that word—‘cursing.’ Like all we can do is bad magic. I mean, why would you even want to do the bad stuff? The blowback’s awful. Like, if all a luck worker ever does is make people have good luck, then all he has is good luck too. It doesn’t have to be bad.”
“Magic,” the girl says. “It’s just all magic.” (pg 198)
Here's the thing, it makes sense to discriminate against someone who can kill you with the slightest touch of a finger.  It makes sense to be cautious around someone who can change or steal your memories, affect the way your emotions work, or break your bones with a single touch .  As an analogy to the real discrimination marginalized people face, what Black has done is not only  offensive,  it  quite simply does not work.

Black further heads into a problematic area when views on race are explained:
Wallingford's idea of political correctness is never to mention anything about race. Ever.  Tan skin and dark hair are supposed to be as invisible as red hair or blond hair or skin so white its marbled with blue veins. (pg 150)
Given that there is never any real discussion on issues historically marginalized people face, I tend to believe this intentional blindness is simply the way that Black has set her world up to work.

I picked up White Cat because I absolutely have a weakness for the bizarre in books but unfortunately, that is not what I got.  The way that magic works in this universe is interesting but told through the eyes of a protagonist who just seems so very ordinary, it failed to draw me in.  The mystery is actually pretty good but how it is concluded is a little ridiculous to say the least.  White Cat doesn't suffer from much of the angst typical to YA urban fantasy and for that I am thankful.  The best I can say about White Cat is that it falls into the category of meh.  It's not so boring that cleaning your bathroom becomes an exciting option but it's far from thrilling.