Maybe it’s just because I picked this up after a long day of failing to strip wallpaper from my bathroom, but White Cat was really gripping. Aside from a Supernatural-infused dinner break with my dad, I didn’t put it down and ripped through it in a single night. That’s not a feat—it’s YA and not particularly long—but it’s a mark of how much Holly Black made me want to stay in her world and find out what was really going on with Cassel Singer and the mysterious white cat.
It’s a fair place to start by focusing on the magic, but, you know, the magic doesn’t actually interest me all that much. The magical system here is a simple one: some people are workers (“curse workers” if you want to be derogatory), of which there are various types. It’s a gift, not something you really can or have to learn, and every variety comes with “blowback” that people can or can’t handle to various degrees. It’s a neat little system, but that’s not what is so interesting about White Cat.
Instead let’s talk about the gloves.
The gloves are first mentioned on pages 5 and 6, where Cassel describes both Dean Wharton and Ms Northcutt wearing them. This is before we know about working, and a casual eye would miss them, but the insistence on everyone wearing gloves is our first signal that not everything is the same as our world (or else Cassel is going to a fetish school). Once we learn that workers affect you by touching you with their hands, the gloves make total sense. But what rocks is how Black weaves the gloves retroactively throughout our history. We hear about the Romans wearing gloves. And even in people’s most intimate moments, when all their other clothes are discarded, the gloves tend to stay on. When Cassel finds porn on his brother’s computer, what’s significant and titillating about the images are that the women aren’t wearing gloves! I love attention to details like this. I love subtle social differences between our world and fictional worlds that are consequences of the type of magic loose in the latter. And I love that Black weaves it seamlessly through the book rather than hitting us over the head with it.
Indeed, White Cat is one of those rare gems of tidy exposition. Black drops us into the middle of Cassel’s life, casually lets on that he killed his best friend … and then doesn’t develop that for a while. Instead, we’re more concerned with the mystery du jour and Cassel’s need to stop sleepwalking so he can stay in school. Similarly, although we learn about how curse working is illegal in the States and there are mafia-like families that snap up most workers, Black doesn’t ever go too far off the deep end of explaining all this. There is plenty we don’t learn about the wider politics of working or of this world, not just because it is irrelevant to seventeen-year-old Cassel, but because it is irrelevant to this particular plot. Black is confident (and rightly so, at least in my case) that the reader will be able to follow along with what little she gives them. As a result, we get a lighter, easier book that keeps you interested without hitting you over the head and yelling, “Hey, isn’t my world so cool?”
These details kept me going even though the actual mysteries and plot of White Cat are not that complex. It was fairly easy to see the link between Lila and the eponymous cat, especially after we learn what her power was. Same goes for the identity of the mysterious, rare worker whose existence Cassel must deduce given what he learns about Lila’s murder. About the only thing I didn’t predict was the nature of the ending, wherein Cassel’s mom gives him a gift he wishes he could refuse, because all it does is complicate his life beyond reason (but more on that in a moment).
It’s a measure of the quality of a book that even when you find it predictable you keep reading, because you’re just enjoying it so damn much.
Cassel is an excellent narrator. My YA reading in recent years has largely been dominated by female protagonists. This is an observation, not a complaint; I deliberately seek out YA with female narrators because I can’t experience what it is like to be a woman, and this is a great way to build empathy with what young women go through growing up. Nevertheless, I don’t want to ignore the multitudes of experiences that young men have that I might have avoided when I was younger. So I enjoyed Cassel’s voice. I like that he has an Indian background. I like how he gradually comes to a realization that friendship might actually be worth something—watching Sam and Daneca evolve from minor characters he is conning/taking advantage of into full-fledged sidekicks is very cool.
Moreover, Black depicts his relationship with his brothers with exactly the right balance of love and tragedy. Even when Cassel discovers that they have essentially betrayed them, he can empathize with them and try to save them from themselves. The way that Cassel manipulates Barron near the end of the book is brilliant.
So, that ending.
I was ready to three-star this book before that ending. I enjoyed it, particularly Cassel as the narrator and his relationship with his family. But as I said, I found much of the plot merely satisfactory. Then we get that ending, where for a moment Cassel seems to have everything that he wants—until a phone call from his mother snatches it all away again. Black neatly finishes the story off while still making us demand a sequel, because now we have to know how Cassel handles this well-meaning betrayal. Like, I’m not all that interested in the next book’s description of its plot, but I will read it, because I need to emotionally process this. It’s squicky in a consent? sort of way, all tangled and totally messed up. Well played, Black. Well. Played.
So, in short, White Cat is worth reading if you like magic and YA and alternative history and crime families and stuff like that. It’s the goods. And if my critique is that it’s overly simplistic at times, just keep in mind that’s often better than so-convoluted-you-need-a-whiteboard-and-string-to-keep-track. What matters is that Black creates a world and characters worth reading about, and a story that was exactly what I needed on a Sunday night.