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White Cat- Holly Black

October 1, 2010

White Cat
Holly Black
Margaret K. McElderry, May 2010 320 pages $17.99

I spotted Karen Healey’s review of this and ordered it from the library. Loved it. I haven’t read as much Holly Black as I probably should, given that she tends to write straight for my sweet spot: urban fantasy.  Or a specific subset where magic is well-incorporated into the fabric and customs of an otherwise normal world. Charms and hexes and spells and rituals are both background noise and social architecture. Maybe a little feared, maybe revered, maybe both depending on politics or the media spin. Another book that did this extraordinarily well was Sunshine, by Robin McKinley. (Sunshine gets an added plus for the descriptions of baked goods. Food lit and folk magic! It doesn’t get any better than that! Also vampires.)

In the world of White Cat, people wear gloves because magic is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. People who can do magic are called curse workers, or just workers. And the magic they can do exacts a price on them. It’s called blowback. If you do luck magic, you get lots of good luck. If you do memory magic, your own decays. I like the specificity of this, building on already pretty common ideas of magic’s costs (the pagan construct of three-times-three.) Given those structures, it makes perfect sense that some of the most powerful working families have a crime-family mob dynasty hierarchy. Which plays into the book’s architecture.

Cassel is the only non-worker in a family of pretty powerful workers. A brother who can do luck, a mother who uses emotional manipulation to work cons. Cassel doesn’t do work, but he’s a troubled kid– he killed his best friend years ago, and his family helped him cover it up. But… things are going strange for him, he’s sleepwalking and clearly on the verge of a dangerous adventure that tips the balance.

I really loved the way the magic of this society was laid out, the way it happened around Cassel, and made him feel like an outsider as a way to come to grips with his family history. I love the cultural architecture of worker magic, set against normal things like teenagers at a boarding school, or family history, or even normal mystery plots involving shady dealings. The details are done really well. And the writing itself, of scene descriptions, both ordinary teenage awkwardness and distinctly freaky dream sequences. Dream sequences, especially in speculative fiction, impress me when they’re done well. It’s so rare that they’re subtle and actually evocative rather than screaming out plot device.

It’s a mixed blessing that this is the start of a series. What will I do til the next one comes out? Now I have two series continuations to pine for! Argh! I keep reading rumors that Robin McKinley will set another book in the Sunshine world. Write faster ladies! (And while I”m waiting for next volumes in series, could Laurie R. King get on with the Kate Martinelli series? Please!?)

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