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White Cat US cover

White Cat UK cover

It is a curious thing about some novels that while they seem to work well enough for the first reading, subsequent readings reveal faults so glaring one wonders how on earth one missed them before. The first time I read White Cat I found it entertaining without being particularly demanding, though I felt the realization of the setting had a few problems, and I wasn't quite sure how the protagonist had arrived at a certain state of knowledge. As luck would have it I didn't write the review immediately and when I did, I felt obliged to refresh my memory, at which point the whole novel collapsed before my eyes.

What makes this all the stranger is that the novel's protagonist is the son of a con artist and on occasion employs the skills he's learned from his mother. As Cassel Sharpe puts it, "Being a con artist means thinking that you're smarter than everyone else and that you’ve thought of everything. That you can get away with anything. That you can con anyone" (p. 15). I find myself beginning to wonder if being a writer isn't in some ways not dissimilar to being a con artist. Certainly, I can’t help thinking that Holly Black is pulling some sort of con trick here, distracting the reader so that she fails to notice the gaping holes in the novel's construction.

What originally caught my interest about this novel was its apparent alternative history setting. This is a version of the U.S. in which, rather as the production and sale of alcohol was banned in 1919, so the use of magic was prohibited in 1929. Why 1929 specifically? In our world, this was of course the year of the Wall Street Crash and effectively the beginning of the Great Depression, events which seem also to have occurred on the novel's timeline. Why magic was banned then (and for that matter, how it was used before that time), and why the ban was never repealed, beyond something to do with trade initiatives and the European Union (which apparently came into being as per this world) remains a mystery, because, conveniently, Cassel Sharpe is asleep in class at that point. In fact, White Cat seems not to be a true alternative history so much as a novel in which facts have been conveniently twisted for effect; for example, Australia was settled by convicted magic workers which is why curse work has never become illegal there. This vague handwaving response to the novel's history is most evident when Mrs Wasserman, mother of one of Cassel's friends and a campaigner for workers' rights, gives Cassel a thumbnail history of the oppression of magic workers which seems rather more for the reader's benefit than for his. Centuries of oppression have been compressed into a few short sentences, and yet it's odd how this fictional world looks remarkably familiar except for a few small oddities such as the trade in charms and the way everyone wears gloves. But then, I don’t think Black's interest really lies in the behind-the-scenes worldbuilding aspect of this novel. Instead, she relies on the audience not actually questioning the world's construction because, and this is key to any confidence trick, she is as far as possible telling the truth, or in this instance, making the world look as much like our own as possible.

If not in the premise on which the world is built, where then does Black's interest lie? The answer seems to be "crime." Rather as the prohibition of alcohol in the USA on our timeline encouraged the spread of organized crime, in the novel's world it was the prohibition of magic that prompted the rise of the great crime families of the US, when all the magic workers were interned in camps after magic was made illegal. It's an intriguing idea but having come up with it Black seems to do very little with it. The crime families supposedly protect the workers, run the various amulet rackets, and so on, but it's difficult to get any sense of what this involves. Cassel's brothers, both magic workers, "labor" for the Zakharov family, but the use of magic is not as intrinsic to this relationship as one might expect. It is purely a grace note to use magical means to enforce Zakharov's rule, as the presence of many non-magical laborers would indicate. The problem, I think, is that the notion of criminal families exploiting magic is tangled up in a more basic but imperfectly explained fear of magic. For the purposes of the novel, magic becomes "the Other," the marker that invites social unease, the shunning of certain groups, their ill-treatment, exploitation and imprisonment. One might change ‘"magic worker" to "sex worker" or "illegal immigrant" or any other group perceived as marginalized in U.S. society, and the effect would not be too dissimilar. But having set up this possibility, Black seems to sidestep it.

Having established that this fictional USA is a very flimsy backdrop, it's time to look at the actual story. Cassel Sharpe comes from a family of magic workers but has no magic skills of his own. His brothers, Philip and Barron, both workers like his father and his mother, despise him for this. He has, though, learned the skills of a con artist from his mother, who uses her ability as an emotion worker to enhance her ability to con people, and as a result Cassel understands better than most how such things work. He uses this knowledge to appear as normal as possible in order to counteract people's expectations, not least because his mother is currently in jail after her most recent plan went wrong, and because he has secrets of his own. This story will clearly go one of two ways: Cassel and his family will somehow come to terms with his lack of magic skills, or he will discover a skill of his own. Given the attitude of Cassel's family towards magic, the former seems unlikely, so it's already obvious what will happen. The interest lies, therefore, in how that discovery will be made.

This in turn throws up a new set of problems. Cassel has always believed that when he was younger, he murdered his friend, Lila. He has distinct memories of doing so, although no clear understanding of why he might have done this, but his brothers covered up his crime and since then he has tried to live as quietly as possible, avoiding drawing attention to himself. Until, that is, he finds himself on the roof of his school, having apparently sleepwalked there while dreaming about a white cat. It eventually becomes clear to Cassel that his memories have been tampered with, to the extent that he can no longer be sure what of his past life is or isn't real, and that his brothers are deeply implicated in this. Also, the white cat, which is not just a dream figure, will play a significant part in his discovering what has happened.

The alternative historical flim-flam surrounding the actual plot is somehow unnecessary once the story focuses on the main issue. Cassel's family is almost magnificent in its dysfunction. His brothers have no filial regard for him whatsoever, while his mother is an interfering and smothering presence who will clearly never allow her children to become independent if she can possibly be involved in "helping" them along, and is possibly safest when kept at a distance in jail. She has seemingly been taken in by her own confidence trick, genuinely believing that she has been the best of parents. Yet, when Cassel helps his grandfather to clean the family house the accumulation of junk is indicative of just how long his family has been living in squalor and chaos and why boarding school might be preferable. In turn, Cassel's realization that someone has tampered with his memories even while he has worked to make a stable life for himself is all the more disturbing. The strongest moments in the novel come at points when the reader is confronted with characters' disregard for the basic rights of others.

Yet, even here, things are not quite what they seem. There comes a point roughly halfway through the story when improbably, in the space of a few pages, Cassel has suddenly figured out most of what has been happening to him. A few details need to be sorted out but Cassel becomes aware that his memories have been tampered with, the significance of the white cat becomes clear, and the direction of the story shifts from puzzle-solving to retribution with an abruptness that feels most unsatisfactory. It is not the need for retribution that is itself objectionable; given what has happened to Cassel so far, it says a lot about his own decency that his revenge is designed as much to protect his family as to punish them. No, it is the speed of the transition, the compression of that shift into a few short pages, that is troubling. It is almost as though two shorter stories have been bolted together, and the second story, regrettably, is not half so interesting than the first. So long as the reader doesn't pay too much attention, the transition works well enough, but pause for a moment to wonder how this has come about so suddenly and, although it remains entirely logical, the narrative progression falters. Put simply, the mystery has gone. All that is left is the inexorable unwinding of the plot against Cassel. It is well enough done but it is a great pity that Black didn't reserve a greater surprise for the end.

And this, I think, is the biggest problem with this novel. It has not been made in such a way as to survive close scrutiny. At its heart there is a truth—the nature of Cassel's relationship with his family and their willingness to use him, not to mention everyone he holds dear—but that truth both distracts the reader from the flimsiness of the rest of the novel's construction and is in its turn undermined by Black's use of it to distract the reader from the flaws in the rest of the novel.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and freelance copyeditor. She recently completed an MA in Postcolonial Studies and has now embarked on a PhD, focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is now an assistant editor of Foundation.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and freelance copyeditor. She reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and was assistant editor of Foundation. She was senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons when she died in September of 2022. You can read a 30 January 2023 special issue devoted to Maureen.
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