At the start of Holly Black’s White Cat, 17-year-old Cassel is anxious to let us know that he is not a good guy. He comes from a family of curse workers and has grown up learning how to con everyone he encounters. And, most chillingly, he killed the one girl he ever loved.
He can’t remember much about it. His brothers won’t talk to him about it, and his mother, who is in prison for working a wealthy man, tells him to do what his brothers say. For some time that has meant attending a boarding school and trying to stay out of trouble, which, since Cassel is the only member of his family without worker abilities, isn’t difficult. But when Cassel wakes up at the top of a school building’s tower with no idea how he got there, his safe life begins to crumble. As he tries to solve the mystery of his sleepwalking, dreams of a white cat intersect with his memories of Lila, the girl he killed, the mobsters that his brothers work for, and a knot of family secrets and lies.
White Cat moves at a brisk pace, and Cassel manages to be a slightly surly teenager while still being likeable. In his world, curse workers are a fully integrated, if currently illegal (in the US at least) part of society. This makes for a lot of fun alternate history references, like that guy in the 60s, Timothy Leary, who thought if kids took a bunch of acid it would release their innate curse worker abilities, or the fact that curse working is legal in Australia because the country was founded by curse worker convicts. The wider world is only hinted at, but this is the first book in a series, and what is here whets the appetite for more.
Ultimately, White Cat is about power: who has inherited curse worker abilities, who controls those workers, what they do with the powers at their disposal, and, most importantly, who is running the con.
If you like White Cat, then you’ll probably also enjoy the Demon’sLexicon trilogy by Sarah Rees Brennan.