White Cat, by Holly Black

Seamlessly integrating magic believably into a real-world setting is a hard task to accomplish. It has to be introduced into a story in such a way that we accept it without question as readers, inducing that famous ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. It has to be said of Holly Black that she manages to do just that in her latest YA novel, White Cat (the first of a trilogy), where the use of the outlawed ‘curse-working’, as she’s termed it, is so flawlessly ingrained into the world and milieu she’s created that the reader doesn’t actually realise that there’s anything weird or fantastical about the premise.

Cassel is the youngest son of a curse-working family, a family which also just happens to be one of the five big crime families in America. There’s only one big problem in his life, however: he’s the only member of his family who isn’t a curse-worker, and as such is a big disappointment to his family, especially to his two older brothers, Philip and Barron, who positively hate him for it. The book opens with Cassel waking up at night on the roof of the exclusive school he attends, Wallingford Academy, having apparently sleepwalked up there from his dorm while having a dream of following a white cat. It’s an act that manages to get him excluded from school for a while: however, the cat isn’t a figment of his imagination – she’s very real and is just about to make his life very complicated indeed.

As the title implies, the cat is central to plot of this story which mixes the faintly supernatural and the exploits of mobsters. Black carefully reveals all the little secrets and puzzles of Cassel and his family drip-by-drip, as his life gradually unravels and he’s not quite as certain about the way things are as he used to be. The narrative threads don’t really start to mesh together until roughly a third of the way through, but from then on the story clips along at a good pace. However, a clever reader will be able to start putting all the pieces together long before the end comes together if he/she has been paying attention. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – even if the reader DOES figure out what’s happening there’s still a solid enough and well-written story behind it to keep the reader fully engaged.

The idea that magic can co-exist with technology like computers and mobile phones seems, on paper, to be a recipe for disaster, or at the very least a jarring juxtaposition. However, Black subtly weaves the idea throughout the story and, although it’s a major component of Cassel’s world, it isn’t overplayed to the point where it’s constantly pushed into the reader’s face or becomes a jarring note, or even becomes an attempt to spice up an otherwise prosaic story. In addition, curse-working brings together and neatly explains the plot threads and the action nicely and consistently.

Bearing in mind that this is a YA novel, don’t go looking for anything deep or meaningful here – it’s just a good story, competently told and with the characters drawn as much as they need to be. Admittedly, this reviewer found the adult characters somewhat more interesting (if, maybe, a little stereotypical), with Cassel’s school friends being less easy to engage with or relate to. Our erstwhile hero’s character, however, does grow a little over the course of the novel, if not in confidence and stature, then at least in awareness of the true nature of what’s going on around him, knowledge that is at times very painfully bought.

A good solid premise, marred a little by some fairly typical characterisations. The latter is not enough to deter this reader from following Cassel into the next volume, Red Glove, which is due out next year.

The original review can be found here.


Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Gollancz

Publishing date: 17th June 2010

ISBN: 0575096713


5 Responses to “White Cat, by Holly Black”

  1. “Bearing in mind that this is a YA novel, don’t go looking for anything deep or meaningful here”

    One wonders if many so-called adult books are deep and/or meaningful. I have my doubts…

    • I would certainly agree with that, Peter – what I meant to imply is that the story is more important here and that it’s actually a good one at thet,… I really want to see how Cassel progresses in the next two novels in the series…

  2. Sefton Disney Says:

    At the risk of sounding post-modern – one of my deepest fears – I think meaning is usually in the eye of the beholder anyway…

  3. Sefton Disney Says:

    Me, probably! 🙂

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