This series gets: ♥♥♥♥ out of 5
The Curse Workers, a trilogy by Holly Black – A preface note: I listened to all of these on audiobook, so any name misspellings are purely Holly’s fault for giving all of her characters homonyms for names (Cassel = Castle, Barron = Baron). For the longest time I was actually spelling “Cassel” as “Castle” in my head, and let me tell you, that is way more awesome.
Anyhow, I loved Curse Workers. The idea is brilliant. Cassel Sharpe lives in an alternate Earth, where one in every one thousand people has a special ability–these “workers,” as they’re called, can place a curse with no more than the touch of a bare hand. Workers come in all kinds, from small-time luck workers (good or bad luck), to emotion or memory workers, to death workers who can kill just by removing a glove. (Like magic in most books, there are repercussions to “working,” called “blowback,” which is always related in some way to the type of curse-working. Oh, yeah. This is definitely my favorite alternate universe ever.)
In the curse worker world, nine big crime families recruit and hire workers for their mob activities. While Cassel Sharpe’s family mainly consists of small-time crooks and conmen, Cassel finds himself pulled into the Zacharov crime family’s twisted web–a scary proposition, considering he murdered Zacharov’s beautiful daughter, Lila, and his family helped him bury the secret.
The worst part? Cassel has no idea why he did it.
In this series, Black has woven an intricate and gorgeous world. I especially loved the texture of the crime families and the “if you’re our friend, we’ll do anything for you–but become our enemy, and you’re dead” sort of mafia mentality. Cassel is a fun narrator, too: he frames everything for us in terms of cons and marks and blue-collar crime, even as he attends a private New York prep school (paying part of his way by playing bookie for rich kids). And, for the first novel of the series (White Cat), I really, truly believed in him. I haven’t been really impressed lately with female authors writing male narrators, but Black did an incredible job with Cassel.
Then we hit the middle of the series, Red Glove, and Cassel’s narrative really starts to fall apart. The romance was over-written and, to me, felt forced. I think a lot of this was cleaned up in the final novel, Black Heart, where we get the sense that Cassel’s undying love for Lila Zacharov originates in the fact that the two are, deep down, kindred spirits–that only a criminal can possibly understand and love another.
But Red Glove also opened some pretty gaping plot holes. I remember stopping a number of times throughout the novel to wonder, “Uh, duh. Should have thought of that in the last book.” Like a lot of YA trilogies, the middle of this one feels middle-ish: dragging, mopey, and not very cohesive, like Black found herself written into a corner and wasn’t sure how to get out.
Things pick up again in the series finale, Black Heart. I have what you might call a minor obsession with graying the lines between good and evil–I’m especially tickled by authors that up and flip the two, so what’s good becomes evil and what’s evil becomes good. Black avoids beating us over the head with right vs. wrong in the series finale and for that, I’m grateful. A character like Cassel–torn between being loyal to his family and doing what the law says is “right”–can’t have a clean, neat little resolution. He’s too complicated and the characters in his life are too important for such a cop-out.
Though Curse Workers stumbles a little in the middle, overall, Cassel is a likable and authentic male narrator (minus the overplayed romantic sub-plot). I liked his family, I liked his stereotypical geek-friend Sam (Black couldn’t have picked a more over-used sidekick name if she tried), I even liked the obnoxious Danica after a while. And Black’s world is worth exploring, even if just for the pleasure of seeing everything you know turned upside-down. The twist in White Cat is probably my favorite literary twist ever.
If you’re looking for a fun male narrator, a good fantasy story and a little bit of crime-thriller-mystery, check out Curse Workers.