***SBRs 7th Best Read for 2013***
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: Fantasy (YA)
Cassel is the youngest of 3 brothers who come from a line of curse workers (people with magical abilities that they can afflict on others by the touch of a hand). What has always set Cassel apart from the rest of his family is that he is without magic. This would seem to explain their focus on protecting and keeping him safe. Curse working is illegal and most curse workers are criminals - many (like his mother) operating as grifters, identifying marks and scamming them. At the very top is a mob that compares to the mafia and some work for the mob, acting as hired henchmen, like Cassel's older brothers do, and his grandfather did before them.
Cassel goes to an elite boarding school, which is his refuge and a means of escape from the unsavory lives his brothers lead. He tries to distance himself from his family as much as possible. The book starts with him on the roof of the dorm in the middle of the night. Unable to get down, he has no choice but to call for help. He does not remember climbing on the roof and believes it happened while he was sleepwalking. In his dream he was led there by a white cat. The Dean of the school suspects that it may have been an attempted suicide or a stunt and temporarily suspends him from school - pending a medical examination to prove that he is not mentally unstable. This means he has to go back home to his family.
As a child, he looked up to his oldest brother, Philip, but because of the age difference, felt dismissed by him. He envied Barron, the middle brother, because of his bond with Philip and because, as they got older, Barron received the love of the girl (Lila) that Cassel craved. Lila was Cassel's closest friend and he is trying to live with the guilt of having killed her at the age of 14*. Although the events are sketchy, he relives a memory of himself standing over her lifeless body holding a knife with a wicked grin on his face. His family helped cover it up and prefer not to talk about it. Now in his late teens, Cassel no longer looks up to Philip and is suspicious of him. He suspects that the only reason Philip's wife hasn't left him is because he has cursed her to stay. He suspects that he is leading Barron down the wrong path and is responsible for his ever increasing inability to retain his memories but, because Cassel does not have magic, he feels powerless to do anything about any of this. While at boarding school he had recurring dreams about a white cat. On returning home he finds he is being stalked by a stray one and takes her in. He soon realises it is the same cat, that she has been communicating with him through his dreams and that she may be the key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding his families' secrets....
Here is yet another intelligent novel for young adults by Holly Black. This time it focuses on a (very) dysfunctional family who are heavily linked with the mob. Cassel's mother is in jail - her life as a grifter having caught up with her - and his brothers seem to be preoccupied with some scheme that they are secretive about. As a reader, the murder seemed completely uncharacteristic of Cassel and I instantly had my doubts about his guilt. Needless to say, things aren't what they seem.
For me this novel is very much about feeling the outsider of one's family. It is also about the way 'misfits' become marginalised and how (like a self-fulfilling prophecy) this can lead them to become the same social deviants that they were feared for. "We are the minority the world does not accept", is how Paige Mahoney** puts it. Also, how vulnerable it makes them (easy pickings for unsavory characters). Often in such situations a minority group of 'normals' (represented here by Danica and her mother) are smart enough to see what is wrong and care enough to want to do something about it. (And so they try to engage Cassel and get him to join the cause.)
*This is not a plot spoiler as Cassel reveals this to us at the beginning of the book.
** Paige Mahoney is the protagonist in The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, a recently published sci-fi/fantasy novel that covers a similar theme.