Book Reviews

Review: The Curse Workers Trilogy by Holly Black

White Cat
Cassel comes from a family of curse workers—people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, all by the slightest touch of their hands. Since curse work is illegal, they’re all criminals. But not Cassel. He hasn’t got the magic touch, so he’s an outsider—the straight kid in a crooked family—as long as you ignore one small detail: He killed his best friend, Lila. Now he is sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat. He also notices that his brothers are keeping secrets from him. As Cassel begins to suspect he’s part of one huge con game, he must unravel his past and his memories. To find out the truth, Cassel will have to outcon the conmen. —summary and image from Amazon.com

I wished I liked this series more than I did. Not that Holly Black has done anything grievous to merit my displeasure. Quite the contrary—this series has so many strengths that I’m bitterly disappointed that I can’t bring myself to like it more.

I love the Curse Workers universe. It’s a brilliant alternate world where the criminalization of magic use forced most magic workers underground and into organized crime. (Any similarities between the banning of magic use and Prohibition are most definitely deliberate.) Black fills her world with all sorts of small world-building details that really make this universe multilayered and feel lived in. For example, people always wear gloves because magic can only be performed if your bare hand touches someone, so it’s a huge deal when someone takes off their gloves around someone else. I also liked how using magic always came with a price, though the price varied depending on the kind of magic you used: memory workers losing their own memories, death workers having bits of themselves fall off, and so on.

It’s clear that Black did her research on grifters, conmen, and organized crime. The books all revolve around multiple schemes and other shady goings-on, from Cassel’s bookie side business at school to everyone trying to figure out how to deal with a crazed senator with an anti-worker agenda. Watching Cassel try to deal with all of these spinning plates is a thrill, and it is only made better when he gets outmaneuvered at his own games. Black is great about ramping up the tension (for the most part), and Cassel has enough setbacks in his plotlines that a reader could be legitimately concerned whether or not he will achieve his goals—and if he does, whether or not the price he pays will be worth his victories.

The whole series definitely fits the gritty and grim noir style—in Black Heart, the third book of the series, Cassel even ends up “taking on the case” (as it were) of a damsel in distress who definitely isn’t telling the whole truth. This trilogy is overflowing with another noir favorite: very few good choices for our heroes. Cassel is generally honest with himself (and therefore the reader) when he makes bad choices for the good reasons or good choices for terrible reasons. It comes as no surprise when Cassel’s decisions come right back to bite him, typically in the least convenient moment possible.

I love the characters in this series—even the ones that are pretty despicable. Cassel is a fun narrator, though I think Black cheats in his point of view almost all of the time when Cassel is setting up his schemes. His friends and family are just as messy, complicated, and selfish as he is, and watching them miscommunicate, get in each other’s way, and manipulate one another is equal parts delightful and train-wreck-y. Black does a great job of putting the reader in Cassel’s head, especially in emotionally powerful moments.

So with all the things I have to say in praise of this trilogy, why am I disappointed in it? Really it boils down to two major items: a promise I felt was broken in book one and an uninspiring book two.

When I first heard about the first book, White Cat, from my roommate, I fell hard and fast in love with a specific part of the premise that I won’t point out because of spoilers. If you’re really curious, just look at the summaries for Red Glove, the second book, and Black Heart—you’ll figure it out. I was unbelievably excited to read a book with this premise—only to watch the thing I fell in love with get completely undermined. Not only was this element undermined, the twist was telegraphed so well early on that I spent the next several chapters hoping that I was wrong and then the rest of the book being slightly bitter that I was right. (Granted, this twist makes a lot of awesome things happen later on the road, but it still makes me sad just thinking about it.) This complaint is definitely a taste issue that I’m probably in the minority on—I’m sure that many readers were delighted by the twist. I just felt a little betrayed by it.

What’s less subjective is how much of a slog Red Glove was. I felt much the same way about Red Glove as I did about the movie version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: “Look! Confused teenagers trying to figure out their feelings and romantic entanglements and all this other magical drama, oh, wait, there was something more important going on? Snape’s the half-blood prince? You’re sure? Okay, whatever, are Ron and Hermione going to get together? What about Harry and Ginny? …why was Snape important in this movie, again?”

Just substitute the appropriate character names and swap out “half-blood prince” for “murderer” and that pretty much sums up my reaction to Red Glove. If the book was going to focus solely on the emotional fall-out of book one—which there was plenty of opportunity for, and I loved those parts—that would’ve been just fine. Instead, Black dangled the sinister plot thread of a murderer and failed to devote adequate time or importance to it. (It also didn’t help that the identity of the murderer was not a surprise.) In that way, Red Glove felt a lot like other second books in trilogies: lots of wrapping up the loose ends from book one while setting up more exciting things for book three all the while only being passably interesting.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, sadly. While there are many things to love about this trilogy, I can’t muster up enough enthusiasm to recommend that anyone else spend their hard-earned money on it without some major caveats. You can read more about what other people thought at Amazon.com or find out more information through an independent bookstore near you.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Curse Workers Trilogy by Holly Black

  1. This review is pretty timely for me. I just checked White cat out of the library to see what all the fuss is about. I usually buy my books, but if I’m not sure about a series I like to grab the first at the library and see if it’s worth my money to invest in it, and the rest of the series. Seeing your review makes me eager to start the book and see how I feel about it.

    Thanks for a good review!

    Kat

      1. I actually did end up liking this series more than I thought I would. I do agree with you though that the twist wasn’t really that much of a twist. I saw that coming.

        1. I’m glad you liked the trilogy! I honestly don’t think the books are bad–they just disappointed me because I was sold on a story that didn’t end up happening.

  2. This is a fantastic series with a totally unique premise. Holly Black really outdid herself. Cassel and his terrible (really terrible) situation is so compelling, I tore through the whole series in less than a week. Not-put-downable. The tone is similar to Tithe, which is to say, dark. But there’s a lot of humor too that comes mostly through Cassel’s dry wit. Holly Black just gets better and better. Great to see such a thorough review!

    1. I’m glad you loved the series! I really wish I liked it as much as you. There were definitely enough good things about it that I’ll try the next books Holly Black comes out with–maybe her upcoming stuff will click better with me than this series did.

Comments are closed.