Allison's Book Bag

QUICK TAKE: The Curse Workers by Holly Black

Posted on: January 7, 2013

Cover of "Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: ...

Cover via Amazon

This past fall, I read a fascinating book called Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction by Jessica Morrell. It led me to search out a definition of anti-hero, which basically is a person who lacks heroic qualities and acts in contrary to society’s standards. He or she is deeply flawed. Just as importantly, that person is unlikely to change. Think John McClane in Die Hard or the female cylons in the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica.

Morrell’s book also led me to start looking for fiction which fit that category. The first books I found were a three-volume set called The Curse Workers by Holly Black. The trilogy features Cassel, who is a con but also part of a mobster family with supernatural powers. If you’re thinking wizards or werewolves, think again. Cassel’s mom can alter how one feels. His brother Barron can change memories. These are pretty unique talents. As for Cassel, at first, he doesn’t think he has any skills. About halfway through White Cat, the first book, Cassel discovers not only does have the ability to invoke curses, but his is the most powerful one because he can transform people. And, apparently he has transformed people, thanks to his family. He just doesn’t remember those acts, also thanks to his family. Once Cassel discovers his powers, he must decide what to do with them. It’s one thing to con his way out of classes or into an appointment, but quite another to transform people into animals or inanimate objects. And while one might forgive someone for unknowingly doing wrong, it’s quite another thing to accept their continual bad behavior once they’re aware of their flaw. Cassel’s initial reaction is to try to help out the good guys or government agents. But being bad has its allure. Especially when the love of his life is also part of a mobster family. What choices will he make? And what will those choices cost him?

Regards what I disliked about The Curse Workers by Holly Black, there’s only a short list. Reviewers tended to like White Cat the best. While I enjoyed all the series, the second and third grew too much into a love story. Also, there tended to be more storylines which would arise but then not receive any satisfying conclusion. For example, the parents of one of Cassel’s friends asks for help for their son but it is never given. Then there are the dreams of one of Cassel’s friends to become a designer, which is often mentioned but nothing ever comes of this either. On a bigger scale, a diamond that causes tension between two mobster families is never found. The last thing I disliked is as I read further into the series is that more situations seemed contrived such as the nonsensical relationship between Cassel’s brother and a college friend.

On the flip side, there are numerous reasons I like The Curse Workers by Holly Black. First, if it were simply a case of which bad guy would win, I probably wouldn’t care. However, Holly Black sets Cassel up as a young adult who tries hard to fit in, but doesn’t succeed too well due to the reputation of his family. He’s also a teen burdened with remorse, because he thinks he killed his girlfriend but doesn’t remember why. Second, there’s the fact that even when Cassel finally figures out who he is and wants nothing to do with the bad guys, his family isn’t so willing to let him walk. Nor are some of the other mob families. Cassel just keeps getting in worse and worse trouble. I couldn’t stop reading, because I wanted Cassel to be safe, make the right choices, but also to be happy. When you’re part of a mob family, those three don’t easily go together, which makes for a suspenseful and gut-wrenching read. Last, Holly Black is a master of details. In the opening chapter of White Cat, Cassel is standing on the window ledge outside his dorm room. We read how it feels to be on the ledge, what it looks like down below, and from behind. In the third book, Black Heart, Cassell gets shoved inside a car trunk. Apparently, for her research into this trilogy, Black took her own ride in the back of a car. These details aside, there’s also the whole culture which Black creates around the curse workers, the mob, and even the boarding school Cassel attends. Every descriptive scene is perfectly crafted to usher us into the Curse Worker world.

My rating? Bag it: Carry the trilogy with you. Make them a top priority to read.

Over the next few weeks for my Quick Takes, I’ll be reviewing other books which feature the bad guys and girls of fiction. Who are your favorite anti-heroes? Why?

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