Black Heart (The Curse Workers, Book Three) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Book One: White Cat. Book Two: Red Gloves.
Spoilers for first two books.
The Plot: Cassel Sharpe, 17, couldn’t stay out of trouble if he wanted to. (Now that’s a question; given his talents, his family, and his background, does he want to?)
The Feds are forgiving his past crimes if he works for them, using his unique talent as a transformation worker, someone who can transform whatever he touches.
His mother is in big trouble with the local crime boss, and all will be forgiven if Cassel does him one little favor. Cassel knows there is no such thing as one favor. It’s complicated by the fact that neither the mob nor the feds can now he’s working for the other. Oh, and another thing — the crime boss just happens to be the father of the girl Cassel loves.
Just to make things all that more simple — not — Cassel has to worry about his senior year in high school. Classes, avoiding demerits, friends, and a possible blackmail scheme.
It’s all in a day’s work for someone with a black heart like Cassel.
The Good: Black Heart is the third book in the trilogy about “case workers,” an alternate world that looks a lot like ours with one simple twist: curse workers. People who, with a touch of a finger, can kill you — or erase your memory — make you fall in love — or, in Cassel’s case, transform.
In the first two books, Cassel discovers his particular gift and realizes he has to make a choice about his future. Black Heart explores Cassel’s need to choose and what that means; and the ties, both blood and friendship and love, that link him to other people and what those ties mean about his future.
Black creates a flawless world, full of such tiny details as a society that always wears gloves so that a naked hand is more shocking than a naked body, to bigger issues such as the impact of the criminalization of people based on genetics beyond their control.
Are the feds the good guys and the mob the bad guys? Are curse worker by their nature criminals?
Cassel’s mother worked a politician, and it ended badly, with repercussions large and small. Is the only way to fix it to kill the politician? Will Cassel do that? Meanwhile, Cassel’s mother stole something from someone very powerful. Problem is, this happened years and years ago. Will Cassel be able to hunt through his family’s shady past, a mix of lies and truths and rearranged facts, to find the missing object?
Cassel narrates, and, as with the others, his observations and delivery are delightful. On love: “Lila would still be mine. Mine. The language of love is like that, possessive. That should be the first warning that it’s not going to encourage anyone’s betterment.”
Cassel on how he was raised to be able to con anyone, regardless of curse magic: “Mom taught it to me when I was ten. Cassel, she said, you want to know how to be the most charming guy anyone’s ever met? Remind them of their favorite person. Everyone’s favorite person is their own damn self.”
As with the previous books, Cassel appears to share everything with the reader, but holds back somethings. Not only is the book a con — a con of the reader — isn’t any book? At one point, Cassel thinks about someone, “she’s kind. She’s good. She wants to help people, even people that she shouldn’t. . . . It’s easy to take advantage of her optimism, her faith in how the world should work. . . . . When I look into Mrs. Wasserman’s face, I know that she’s a born mark for this particular kind of con.” Later as he listens to something his brother is telling him: “the story he’s telling adds up . . . . Barron’s story is messy, full of coincidences and mistakes. As a liar myself, I know that the hallmark of lies is that they are simple and straightforward. They are reality the way we wish it was.”
Aren’t writers con artists, and readers the mark? Happy marks, happy to be born that way, because we want the story, we want the story to work, we want to like what we read. We enter into a bargain with the author: tell me lies, and I’ll believe them to be true.
If you’re one of those people who waits until it’s complete to read and buy a series, you have a new set of covers. If you aren’t, you have a cool thing to explain to people who look at your shelves and wonder about the change. And, if you wait till a series is over to make sure it’s worth investing the time: yes, this series is worth it and then some. Black Heart nicely wraps up the most important questions in Cassel’s journey, yet doesn’t answer every question or resolve every little thing. I could easily see a new series (possibly even a for-adults series) set in this world.
Other reviews: Sonderbooks; Ex Libris; Q&A with the author at Novel Novice (Part One, Two, Three).