Boy from a troubled family tries to unravel mystery

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am


White Cat
By Holly Black
Published by Gollancz
ISBN 978 0 575 09721

Holly Black is the author of the successful Spiderwick series of fantasy novels. She goes into much darker psychological territory with White Cat, the first book in a new fantasy/horror series.

Black's gothic imagination is still to the fore, but the age of her intended readership has jumped up a notch to the older teen and young adult market with this deeply sinister tale of a troubled family.

The field of gothic novels for older teens is overcrowded, so hopes are high when someone like Black contributes something. This first Curse Workers book 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 power to change the feelings and futures of ordinary adults with just a touch of their fingers. The practice was outlawed back in the early 20th century, but this didn't stop the power from passing down through generations. Anyone who has this power is legally obliged to wear special gloves. But illegal workers exist under the control of triad-like gangs.

Black introduces teenager Cassel into this scenario. His mum is in jail, and his brothers take risks working with magic. Cassel doesn't share his family's gifts. 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, realistic characters in White Cat. 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 Twilight tempts many authors to jump on the bandwagon.

While White Cat is a good read, it does stick to a formula. It may appeal to Black fans who have grown out of her Spiderwick books, but young adult fiction fans deserve a stand-out series that breaks fresh ground.