Capable Hands: Holly Black’s White Cat

Here is what I love most about White Cat: It's filled with surprises. 

This is, of course, the newest novel by Holly Black (Amazon | Indiebound). Long time readers know how  much I heart her books, and a new one is always, always a treat. And it's the first in a series, even better. I actually read it some time ago, and have been meaning to write about it ever since. It's a book that crawls around in your brain for weeks afterward–or it did mine anyway.Holly_black-whitecat2[1]

I'm sure you know the premise already, but just in case. White Cat features an alternate version of our world, close in many ways, but different in a major one: Magic is real, but only a small percentage of the population known as curse workers can do it. Cassel is from a family of curse workers, but isn't one. Curse work is akin to the mafia in our world, and it's accomplished through touch, which means bare hands are forbidden by society. This first in the series begins with Cassel waking up on a roof at the boarding school where he's been playing at normal, only running a light bookie racket. The implication is that he's being worked, and he finds himself obsessing over the memory of a murder, one he himself committed. The journey that follows is witty, sly, and complicated. True darkness waits in the shadows of this world, and the reader is riveted by the twin hope that Cassel will manage to both master that darkness and escape it.

I don't want to toss out spoilers, because as I've said, the surprises this book holds are one of its great pleasures. In fact, the reason I said the surprises are what I love most about it is because it gives up twists and revelations with ease. Too often writers hoard twists and reveals, as if they're afraid to spend them and must draw them out as long as possible. Here is a writer who isn't afraid to spend a twist, because she can pull off an even bigger one later in the book. A writer who isn't afraid to give you (and the character) a revelation early on rather than saving it for the end, because the character is rich enough to possess a deep well of secrets. Even the way in which the titular fairy tale is recalled and reworked is a surprise all its own.

White Cat should win the YA Edgar next year; it's a crime novel with a mystery at its heart. And I'm also hopeful that it will help reopen the way for a broader variety of contemporary YA fantasy than we've been seeing in the field recently. (I'm in for a good paranormal romance just like the next person, but there's room for so much more.)

Writers who take real chances in their work are far too rare. I bet we can all easily think of a dozen writers who seem–from the outside at least–to have identified their comfort zone and decided not to leave it. How fabulous, then, to see someone who is hugely successful still pushing the limits of their craft, willing to take on a major departure from what came before. Willing to keep surprising us. Old fans will love this, and I predict the series will draw even more new ones. IF THERE IS ANY JUSTICE IN THE WORLD.

And now, an aside: The thing about Holly is, she's just as excellent and amazing a person as a writer. And she's effortlessly smart about storytelling and writing. When she and Sarah breezed through Lexington on tour, we were talking after their event about revisions because Christopher was just getting started on his first-ever substantial revision for his first-ever novel (just turned in last week!). We came around to the subject of character and how protagonists often need a lot of work in second drafts and revisions, that they can feel like ciphers. Not quite fully formed. And Holly said something I'm sure I've heard a variation on before, but at that specific moment clicked into place, opened up something for me like a key. I'm going to now paraphrase it in an undoubtedly far less elegant way than actually said. Holly said that often happens because you're so close to the protagonist when you're first telling the story, and the protag is looking around describing what they see, discovering the world, and so they aren't present on the page yet.

This, for me, is SO TRUE. And it's so strange to realize a character isn't on the page yet sometimes, when you've been really close to them and understand them inside and out and they feel fully developed. But that's not on the page yet. What's on the page is what they see, what happens to them. So I'm now trying to pay more attention to that while drafting, but especially in early revisions. Anyway, I pass on this aside in case it is similarly revelatory to any of you.

So, White Cat. It's being published for adults in the UK, I believe, and so clearly has metric tons of cross-over potential for the adult audience. If you like dark fantasy or twisty con stories or reinvented fairy tales or, well, awesome, then give this one a try. You'll probably be surprised.

I leave you with a random lovely snippet from early in the book, when Cassel goes back to the house he grew up in:

Someone could cut through the mess in our house and look at it like one might look at rings on a tree or layers of sediment. They'd find the black-and-white hairs of a dog we had when I was six, the acid-washed jeans my mother once wore, the seven blood-soaked pillowcases from the time I skinned my knee. All our family secrets rest in endless piles.

Sometimes the house just seemed filthy, but sometimes it seemed magical. Mom could reach into some nook or bag or closet and pull out anything she needed. She pulled out a diamond necklace to wear to a New Year's party along with citrine rings with gems as big as thumbnails. She pulled out the entire run of Narnia books when I was feverish and tired of all the books scattered beside my bed. And she pulled out a set of hand-carved black and white chess pieces when I finished reading Lewis.

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