Book Review: White Cat, by Holly Black

I am reviewing this book approximately eight million years after it first came out, for which I apologise. I have a long backlog of reading and some books slip through the cracks while others filter up. Sometimes it seems like after catching up on newly-released fiction and finishing my other work and writing, I don’t have any more time for anything, let alone reading more books, which makes me immensely sad, because I deeply love reading. After having this and the rest of the Curseworkers series recommended to me repeatedly, I finally gave in and moved it up the priority list so I’d finally get it read.

In Holly Black’s carefully constructed world, some of the population is born with magic, with different strengths in different areas, depending on the individual. Some people can create luck, others can alter memories, others still can transform objects and living beings. The nonmagical community is terrified of the Curseworkers, as they’re known, and there’s a prohibition on the use of magic, along with, of course, a thriving black market which provides magic for sale to those who can pay for it, although the efficacy and safety of those spells isn’t always guaranteed.

Black’s world is complete with a magical mob of powerful Curseworking families who not only have magic of their own, but also work to control magic. In a world where magic is highly stigmatised, children who demonstrate magical tendencies may be thrown out of their homes and ostracised by their families, which creates a vulnerable population for the mafia to prey on, while families known to participate in Curseworking are feared and viewed as highly suspect.

One thing I love about Black’s world is how carefully she created the backstory, culture, and society. Everyone wears gloves to avoid touching anyone with their bare hands, in the interest of protecting themselves from magic, for example. Black also managed to tie in real history, sometimes with some stretching, to create a rich backstory for Curseworkers. I like it when authors work with real-world events, terminology, and beliefs when they create a world similar to, though not quite the same as, our own. It adds a layer of veracity and a connection for me as a reader, and it also creates a world of tantalising possibility. What if the hedge witches and other supposedly magical people of the past really were magical, and not just hated and feared for being outsiders?

Our hero is in a private school while his mother’s in prison for Working, as it’s known, and he doesn’t fit in anywhere. He’s the nonmagical member of his family, but everyone at school is suspicious of him because of his family origins. When he sleepwalks after dreaming of a white cat, his whole world starts to fall apart, and he finds himself at the middle of a curse, a mystery, and a whole lot of betrayal. It’s a tightly-woven and suspenseful plot with a fair amount of whiplash for the reader, although some of it is also very predictable.

Predictability is often cited as a problem with a story, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Yes, we as readers know what is going to happen or can easily guess, but the protagonist does not, and that creates tension in the story; we start to feel omniscient, and we start to wonder why he’s not seeing the obvious, and to start thinking about how he’s going to deal with it when reality explodes over him and he’s forced to confront it. Knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t necessarily detract from the pleasure of watching it unfold over the course of the story, and seeing how the author deals with it.

In White Cat, there are a lot of great questions about family and friendship, as well as layers of lies and deception. Can someone skilled at the art of the con drop his barriers long enough to make friends? Can he use his skills for good purposes as well as bad ones? And when you’re used to living in a web of lies, who exactly can you trust, and how far are you willing to trust them? With your life?

There’s also a fascinating and chilling undertone in the book as Black explores the uses and abuses of magic, and the commonalities between a family of con artists and a family of magic workers; when you’re one and the same, you have a mutual contempt for nonmagical people as well as marks. I thought it was an interesting take to explore, because there is a sense in a lot of YA fiction of this nature that magical people are better, special, unique. In Black’s world, they can be vicious and cruel and have no qualms when it comes to abusing not just nonmagical people, but also each other, to get what they want. It seems like a more accurate depiction of how people really operate, even if it’s simultaneously disheartening at times.

Black’s text explores what happens when you criminalise a basic aspect of people’s identity, trying to suppress magic by outlawing it, and how that can feed a dark underworld that only grows with efforts to bring it under control. Even our hero is not entirely innocent here, and with the shifting sands of loyalty and deception, it’s sometimes hard to know who to like, or to trust.