This week I’m recommending a novel by Holly Black, a writer who excels at creating tough Urban Fantasy based on Fairy Tale motifs. `White Cat’ came out in 2010 and it’s the first in her `Curse Workers’ series. Although the leading characters are teenagers, the tone and content of `White Cat’ make it too dark a novel for young readers. It is available in paperback or as an ebook, and the audio edition (read by Jesse Eisenberg) is particularly good. Making modern New Jersey seem magical isn’t easy, but Black is up to the challenge. In her version of reality, the power to work magic with the touch of a hand runs in certain families. Each `Curse Worker’ has a particular skill. They may be able to affect luck, alter memories, dreams or emotions, or even kill with a touch. Working magic became illegal in America in 1929, so now `Worker’ families are usually part of the criminal underworld.

The story starts with a terrified boy on a rooftop. Seventeen year-old Cassel Sharpe is trying to fit in at Wallingford, a boarding school for wealthy  kids. It isn’t easy because his background is far from normal. His grandfather is a `Death Worker’, his father is dead, his mother is in prison for fraud and his brothers work for Zacharov, an infamous Russian-American gang-boss. Cassel feels like an outsider in his own family because he is the only one who doesn’t have a magical talent, so he tries to compensate by being the perfect con artist. Worse still, Cassel knows that he’s a murderer. Three years ago he stabbed his best friend, Lila Zacharov to death. Cassel can’t remember why he killed her, but he’s grateful to his elder brothers, Philip and Barron for covering up the crime. His mother has taught him that `there is no-one who will love you like your family’.

After a nightmare about a white cat causes Cassel to sleepwalk onto the roof of his dorm,  he’s thrown out of Wallingford. While he’s scheming to get himself reinstated, Cassel is forced to stay with his relatives.  He soon notices that something is very wrong with Philip’s marriage and he discovers that Barron has dropped out of Law School. The cat that haunts Cassel’s dreams turns up at the family home and is obviously no ordinary pet. Increasingly troubled by the gaps in his memory, Cassel begins to suspect that his brothers have been lying to him about a lot of things. He turns to non-Worker friends, his room-mate Sam and Sam’s girlfriend Daneca, to help him deceive his relatives and protect the white cat. When Cassel learns the cat’s identity, he also learns some frightening truths about himself and the powers he never knew he had. Betrayed by the people closest to him, Cassel is drawn into a dangerous plan to gain revenge…

`White Cat’ combines a common Fantasy theme (young man discovers that he has unusual powers) with a standard gangster-thriller plot (young criminals conspire to take over the family crime business, even if it means murdering people they’ve sworn to be loyal to) but the result is surprisingly distinctive. This is partly due to Black’s subtle world-building. To begin with, Cassel’s world seems virtually identical with contemporary America. A few small details puzzle the reader. Why do students at Wallingford wear amulets and why is Cassel shocked to see his sister-in-law without her gloves? It gradually becomes apparent that gloves are mandatory because anyone might be a Curse Worker and everyone is afraid of being touched by one. Bare hands are considered `as potentially deadly as unsheathed blades’. In this America, people can be transformed into animals or objects, or have false emotions and memories imposed on them. The gangster chief, Zacharov can identify himself with Koshchey the Deathless, the unkillable sorcerer of Russian folklore (see my April post on `Prince Ivan’ for another version of this character) but genuine magical protection is hard to come by.

One of the things which makes Black’s magic so convincing is that it comes at a very high cost. Every time a Curse Worker uses his or her special skill, there is `blowback’, so Cassel’s Death Worker grandfather has rotting fingers and his Memory Worker brother, Barron, can no longer remember his own life without keeping notes of what he does. In the background, important issues with real life parallels are hinted at. Some politicians are advocating compulsory testing of all citizens for `Worker’ powers but Daneca’s mother is running a group lobbying for the decriminalization of magic, so that Workers are no longer forced to hide their skills. By the end of the story, Cassel has become more aware of the brutal persecution of Curse Workers in other countries, and the potential of some kinds of magic to be used for good, but he still fears it may be too late for himself to be anything but a monster.

At the start of `White Cat’ it is hard to see clever Cassel as a hero. He runs a betting business at school, lies, cheats and steals as a matter of course, and treats anyone outside his own family as a potential `mark’. If he’s really murdered the girl he had a crush on, he is also a psychopath. As we get to know Cassel from the inside, this seems less and less likely and it becomes easy to sympathise with his family situation. He has the ultimate in emotionally manipulative mothers, his grandfather won’t talk about anything important, and the elder brother Cassel once idolized can’t stand to look at him. His relationship with his other brother Barron has never recovered from them both being obsessed with Lila Zacharov, a girl determined to prove to her gangster father that she is as good as any boy. Some of the things his close-knit family do to Cassel are deeply shocking, so Cassel tells the lies he wants to be true. In one of the saddest scenes in the book, Cassel tricks Barron into believing that they are loving brothers who hang out together. This is a novel with a real sting in its tail. If you become as interested in Cassel’s plight as I have done, you will want to read on as his story continues in `Red Glove’ and `Black Heart’. Until next week, probably…