Family themes rescue fantasy novel from following formula
By Holly Black
Published by Gollantz
ISBN 978 0 575 09721
Holly Black, author of the successful Spiderwick series of fantasy novels for young teens, goes into much darker psychological territory with White Cat, the first book in a new fantasy/horror series, Curse Workers. Black's gothic imagination is still to the fore in this new novel, but the age of her intended readership has jumped up a notch to the older teen/young adult market with this deeply sinister tale of family in meltdown.
The field of gothic/magic novels for older teens is overcrowded, so hopes are high when someone like Black enters the fray. The first book of The Curse Workers is a brave attempt to weaken the Twilight challenge hanging over this genre, and Black almost succeeds. But White Cat, good as it is, won't bring in any new converts.
Cassel Sharpe comes from a family of curse workers, people who have the powers to change the feelings and futures of ordinary adults with just a touch of their fingers. Touch-curse-working was outlawed back in the early 20th century, but this didn't stop the power from passing down from generation to generation, and anyone who has this power is legally obliged to wear special gloves. But illegal workers exist under the control of Triad-like gangs.
Into this alternative social scenario, Black slots Cassel, her teen-who-doesn't-fit-in. His mum is in jail, and his two brothers take risks working with magic. Cassel doesn't share his family members' gifts, and when the novel opens he is a student at an elite American boarding school. But he has started to dream about a mysterious white cat, and to sleepwalk.
His mind starts throwing up snatches of a past that he doesn't understand. Is he really responsible for the death of a young girl called Lila? Cassel has to do something to find out who he truly is, and the only people who can help are his curse-working family.
White Cat does differ from other novels on the teen/supernatural shelf in that it is driven by characters, not action. Black is to be applauded in her creation of the flawed, plausible protagonists in White Cat. Her character focus is tight, and in places the novel puts the supernatural on the back-burner and becomes an engrossing tale of a family in conflict.
The massive success of the Twilight series is still tempting many youth fiction authors to jump on the bandwagon. Give a teenager magical or occult special powers, and put him or her in a situation that causes conflict, and some writers think they have an automatic readership.
While White Cat is a perfectly good read, it does stick to a formula and only occasionally tries to break out of what's been done before. It may appeal to Black fans who have grown out of her Spiderwick books, but how many more series about teenagers with magical gifts will hit the shelves before deserving young adult fiction fans get a stand-out series that really breaks fresh ground?
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com.