Review: White Cat by Holly Black

White Cat (Curse Workers #1)
Holly Black

Margaret K. McElderry (2010)
310 pages
YA / magic

Purchase it from Amazon here

Before I even start on White Cat by Holly Black, I have to state the following: Jesse Eisenberg is an awful audio book narrator.  AWFUL.  His name on the box prevented me from picking up White Cat for a few months, but I finally gave in and I wasn’t wrong.  Eisenberg has a very monotone voice with little emotional range.  While he picked up accents for certain characters, there is little to no change in inflection between the first person narration and many of the characters’ dialogues that I had a difficult time figuring out what was being said out loud and what was being narrated.  That’s not a good way to be introduced to a book.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve liked Jesse Eisenberg in movies, but he always plays these detached, unemotional characters that don’t need the ability to express emotion much.  And now that I think about it, I usually watch his movies for other reasons:  The Social Network because it had Fluffy Spiderman Andrew Garfield in it and Zombieland because it had Emma Stone in it and, well, duh, zombies.  He’s not a versatile actor, but he’s got a niche and that’s okay.  He should just not narrate audiobooks.

Wow, been holding that in for a few weeks now since I finished listening to the book.  Now perhaps I can move along to the actual story…

White Cat is told by Cassel, the youngest of three boys in a family of “curse workers” or people who have magical abilities to influence things like luck, memory, and emotion just by touching you.  Cassel is the only one in his family without powers, but he’s picked up the family art of conning people just the same.  A few years before, he killed the girl he loved, but he can’t remember anything other than standing with a knife in one hand and blood all over the floor.  Now his brothers are starting to act weirder than usual and Cassel doesn’t know who to trust or what is real.  Backstabbing, betrayal, dreams about talking cats ensue.

Up front you now know I had difficulty with this book because of the narrator.  I think it might be the primary reason why I didn’t dive headfirst in this world of weird magic and mobsters.  It opens with Cassel waking up in his boxers on the snowy, steeply inclined roof of his dorm, where he apparently had wandered to while following a cat in his dreams.  That’s a very compelling, bizarre and interesting way to open up a story and it allowed more about Cassel to be revealed in a short amount of time.  Yet it took me a good third of the book to really get involved in these cons, double crossing plots and manipulations that tie all of Cassel’s family together.

Cassel is a normal kid amidst not-so-controlled chaos.  He puts up a fake façade to appear normal and doesn’t let anyone close to him.  Then he gets temporarily suspended for his sleepwalking and finds himself hurled back into a life and a family he’s done his best to leave behind.  Cassel’s two brothers, Philip and Barron, are mostly flat ideas that don’t get fully realized until the very end, if at all.  Both work for a big Jersey mobster and seem easily manipulated.  They aren’t nice people, even to their own brother, and do horrible things in the name of “protecting him”.

Philip’s wife gets fleshed out more than the brothers with a fraction of the page space.  Eisenberg played her as flighty and a bit dim, but she struck me as being strong in the face of extreme manipulation and somehow maintaining compassion even when she figures out what’s been going on.  I liked her.  I wanted more of her as well as Cassel’s two friends, who start running cons with him to assist him in his convoluted end game.  They were the three most likeable characters whose motivations made sense to me.

It’s very difficult to explain how I feel about this book without giving key plot devices away.  Certain characters and relationships are hard to describe without giving giant spoilers that I think would ruin the mystery within the book.  So I’ll move on to the world building.

The altered version of this world that Holly Black has built is an interesting place.  It’s the same with only subtle changes.  Because she doesn’t give any info dumps up front, it took me awhile to piece together whether this “curse working” was a new thing or something that weaved through history.  The addition of the occasional mention of the government trying to pass a bill to enforce mandatory blood tests to identify curse workers was the only real mention of the curse workers' larger influence.  Otherwise, the effects of working magic on others are relegated to Cassel and his small circle of family, friends and innocent bystanders.

I liked this world of magic, where everyone wears gloves and curse work is illegal, even though all those with the gift seem to do it anyway.  I liked the concept that mobsters would employ curse workers, often times forcefully, to make them richer, more powerful, and unbeatable.  Though it did make me wonder what curse workers are doing in parts of the world where mobsters aren’t prevalent. 

Overall this was an interesting book with mostly unlikeable characters.  It’s highly possible that my dislike of the characters stems from the audio book and not the characters themselves.  I’m still pretty new to the whole audiobook thing, so separating the book from the recording is difficult.  I’m on the fence on whether to move forward with this series.

 

C+

Interesting take on magic in the real world with all the horrible consequences of working for mobsters; many characters come off as unlikeable and one dimensional until late in the game; avoid the audiobook version at all cost unless a huge Jesse Eisenberg fan