White Cat by Holly Black.
Gangsters. Gangsters with magical powers. It’s one of those ‘slap head and why didn’t anyone think of this before?’ sort of ideas.
White Cat is about the curse workers. It’s set in a world like ours but one where magic is established, well known and feared. Unlike a lot of paranormal fiction where all the magic stuff happens behind the scenes and the greater public live their daily lives completely ignorant of the vampires, werewolves and what-nots living amongst them here the magicians (curse workers) are a part of society, even if it’s the criminal part. It that sense White Cat is similar to Tru Blood, the vampire series about the vampire world attempts to integrate with the normal, mundane world.
Poor Cassel Sharpe. His mother and both his brothers are cruse workers. His mother can manipulate emotions, his brother Philip is able to inflict serious physical damage with the lightest touch and his other brother, Barron, can alter memories. Cassel’s grandfather was a death worker. You get the idea. Cassel is like the runt of the litter. The only non-worker in his family.
The set up is this. Workers are feared and mistrusted. Society has developed charms of protection and as workers can only do their work through the touch of their fingers everyone in society wears gloves. The practice of curse work is outlawed so it’s gone underground. It’s the criminal families that recruit and use curse workers, to be a worker is synonymous to being a member of the Mafia.
Cassel may not be a worker, but he’s every bit the criminal as the rest of his family. He’s a con-man. He’s always playing the angles. But he doesn’t realise the angles being played on him. White Cat is the slow unravelling of his life as he sees that he’s been the victim of a con far exceeding anything he’s played, and the story’s about his attempts to turn the tables on the other players.
Holly’s built a beautifully logical world. Australia has a higher percentage of workers because the original settlers were criminals. Prohibition of curse working in America brought on the rise and power of organised crime. Being a worker has its own risks, blowback, when you work some magic the magic works you too.
There are so many different types of curse worker. Death worker. Luck. Emotions. Memory and Transformation, the last the rarest and all but vanished. There are those trying to force workers to register and come out of hiding, there are those who fight for worker rights and stop the discrimination. There’s so much going on in the background that’s just as fascinating as Cassel’s own story.
Cassel’s a fascinating character and you certainly don’t envy his home life, every one of his family is trouble. He’s hiding his own dark secret, a murder he committed three years previously that his brothers covered up for him and it’s that murder that causes his life to fall apart in White Cat. Like the best gangster stories its about honour, betrayal, bloodshed and power.
After some trouble with her bodyguards I was able to get in touch with Holly Black. I must say, those Russian Mafia types have no sense of humour and I will be sending them my medical bill.
1. The world setting of White Cat is very elaborate. One of the clichés about urban fantasy is that despite events happening in the here and now, they never really affect the real world. White Cat’s very different. The workers are an integral part of society. People hire them for blessings, for beatings, to make sure business goes right for them or badly for their rivals. You establish that charms are very common since people need to defend themselves against being worked and everyone, but everyone, wears gloves. How much time and effort went into building the ground rules for your world?
H: First of all, thank you so much for your incredibly kind and thoughtful review. I am so glad you liked the book!
In answer to your question – I guess I spent quite a bit of time creating and tweaking the rules of the world. Because I had previously been writing books about faeries and had so much folklore to draw on, this was an opportunity to make up something very different. I wanted the magic to feel thematically tied to the crime element. And also, because the world is an “open fantasy” where everyone knows about magic, I wanted magic to impact the world. I think my favorite thing was figuring out that people wore gloves all the time – and then imagining the way that bare hands would become taboo.
2. One of the most fun aspects of Cassel is his elaborate cons, like trying to get the cat from the animal rescue. How much research did you do in this area?
H: Well, I am lucky to know lots of scammers, so that was helpful, especially in that scene. Also, I know some people who work in animal shelters, so I was able to talk over the scene with them.
I did a lot of research on cons in general and would heartily recommend a book called THE BIG CON. It breaks down the steps of many different classic cons and was invaluable. I also really loved a true crime book called SON OF A GRIFTER. Reading about a boy being brought up with an entirely different moral code (never go to the police; if you can steal it and don’t, you’re a sucker) was very instructive in thinking about Cassel.
3. There’s a very cool Russian vein running though this story. The lead gangster family is Russian, there’s a jewel said to have once belonged to Rasputin and the climax takes place in a restaurant called Koshchey, named after the fairy tale character. As a huge fan of Russian mythology I have to ask is this a theme through the books or are we going to see the more traditional Italian Mafia make an appearance?
H: Although we get to hear a little more about the Brennan family, the Zacharovs remain our primary connection to the world of organized crime in these books.
4. I love the idea of blowback. Can you tell us a bit about how this concept came about and what it is?
H: Thank you! Blowback is one of the ways that I limit the power of the curse magic in the books. Basically, a piece of each curse comes back at the person casting the curse. Every curse works the worker. To me, blowback feels like a natural consequence of magic, which is why I like it. I think magic should always have a cost.
5. Red Glove, the sequel, isn’t out for a while. Any minute clues you can give us? What have you planned for Cassel?
H: Without giving away too many spoilers for the first book, I think I can safely say that in RED GLOVE, Cassel has to decide what kind of person he wants to be. There are a lot of temptations in front of him – the biggest to do with love, all to do with power. As his grandfather tells him, “magic gives you lots of choices – most of them are bad.” He has to try and make the right choices.
Thanks to Holly for helping out on the KMKM tour. Phew, it's all feeling a little hectic. And there's still Melissa, Joy, Keirsten and Ally to come. If you've missed any, then click on the button somewhere on the right on this page. No, up a bit. Yes, there.
Okay, next Monday I will be in the US, touring around the wide open spaces, visiting schools and bookstores from California to Chicago and beyond! I will be the Robin to Rachel Hawkins' Batman, but that's because I've always thought I looked good in green shorts.
Hmm, I do have some additional stuff to tell you but forces beyond imaginings have told me to KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT. For now. Neveretheless, I can be bribed. If you do come along to any of the tour stops (see here), that would be great. If you bring pecan pie, that would be greater!