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Red Glove
Holly Black
McElderry hardcover $17.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

White Cat - the first book in Holly Black's Curse Workers series - ended with a piece of authorial sleight of hand so spectacularly dishonest that it could easily have been dreamt up by one of the book's more disreputable characters. The book begins by introducing us to Cassel, youngest scion of a family of magically gifted criminals. Ostensibly without powers of his own, Cassel compensated by working on his skills as a high school conman, and so cuts an intriguingly likeable figure as the guilt-ridden white lamb of a family of decidedly black sheep. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that not only does Cassel have his own powers, but that he has been using his powers for years as an assassin whose memory has been continuously wiped by his treacherous brothers.

What's more, the book also suggests that Cassel kind of liked being an assassin. So, having introduced us to a loveably honourable crook, Black ends the novel by calling into question everything we think we knew about Cassel. Red Glove - the second book in the Curse Workers series - continues the story a few months after the events of White Cat. Cassel has spent the summer grifting with his mother and trying to stay out of the way of the long-lost and recently-returned love of his life Lila who has been cursed to love Cassel, thereby permanently calling into doubt any legitimate feelings she may or may not have had for him.

Given that Black is an experienced writer of series, the sheer number of loose plot strands left dangling at the end of White Cat cannot be seen as anything other than a feat of skill; White Cat is not only a hugely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating book, it also perfectly sets up its sequel. Red Glove should have been the book in which the real Cassel Sharpe snapped into focus. It should have been the book in which decisions were made and paths were forged. It should have been another well-written fantasy caper story that dealt intelligently with the quest for self-definition and the tentative nature of the adolescent self. Sadly, Red Glove is none of those things. Instead, it is a dully melodramatic exercise in plot stasis. It is a book in which nobody changes and nothing is resolved.

Red Glove begins with the revelation that someone has shot and killed Cassel's brother Philip. Initially, Cassel thinks that the culprits may well have been the Zacharov crime family that the family grappled with in White Cat but Zacharov knows that Cassel is a supremely powerful transformation worker and so he has nothing to gain from killing Philip. Cassel's speculations are made more complex when a pair of government agents turn up and try to strong-arm him into solving a series of mysterious disappearances in the curse worker underworld. Bounced between family, criminality and government, Cassel struggles to come to terms with who he is and where his true loyalties lie. He even attends a march against a local politician who is trying to introduce a bill demanding the mandatory testing and tracking of curse workers.

I thought I could never betray my family, never work someone I loved, never kill anyone, never be like Philip, but I get more like him every day. Life's full of opportunities to make crappy decisions that feel good. And after the first one, the rest get a whole lot easier. - page 253

The fact that this moment of quiet reflection comes towards the end of the novel demonstrates how little progress Red Glove makes with Cassel as a character. At the beginning of the novel he is a messed-up teenager who knows he has killed but hopes he is really a good guy and, at the end of the novel, he is still that same person. Instead of developing Cassel as a character, the book contents itself with batting him back and forth between various sources of adolescent angst; does his girlfriend really love him? Is his life ever going to get any better? What part did he play in the break-up of his friends' relationship?

The questions that Black asks of her protagonist are not only dull ones, they are also questions that conspicuously lack answers. Indeed, if White Cat ended with events trapped in a holding pattern then Red Glove is an elaborate exercise in maintaining that holding pattern whilst still milking a book's worth of material from the same set of characters. To say that this is a book in which nothing much happens is an insult to books that do not place a priority on plot as Red Glove is all about the plot; it is just that the plot seems designed to maintain unresolved plotlines in an unresolved state. This evasiveness is particularly evident in the characterisation.

Aside from failing to flesh out Cassel as a character, Red Glove is also reluctant to develop any of its supporting cast. For example, Cassel's mother and grandfather remain incredibly ill-defined presences in Cassel's life, presences that lurk in the wings waiting to either stir the pot for completely incomprehensible reasons (in the case of the mother), or provide some nurturing or some historical wisdom (in the case of the grandfather). Given that Cassel's friends and schoolmates are just as thinly drawn as Cassel's family, one cannot help but wonder whether there might not be an element of authorial cynicism behind Black's evasiveness.

Indeed, if a character remains nebulously defined then a writer keeps their options open as to that character's true motivations and nature. So, by failing to develop the supporting cast, Black is allowing herself the possibility of revealing them to be something both unexpected and narratively useful. For example, it could well turn out that Cassel's mother is working for the feds or that Sam is also a transformation worker. These sorts of revelation would add zest to the third novel in the series and remain a possibility precisely because Black has been so unwilling to commit herself to the true nature of her characters.

What makes Red Glove such a tedious read is that while the book refuses to develop any of its characters or resolve any of the series' outstanding plotlines, it devotes almost the entirety of its length to the sorts of introspection and character interaction that normally provide authors with the opportunity to flesh out and define their characters. So the book sees Cassel moping about the place, bouncing from one relationship discussion to the next, but without any of these conversations or bouts of introspection yielding any insights or revelations. Red Glove completely lacks the caper story elements that made White Cat so much fun, instead of loveable rogues grifting each other using magic and the keen edge of their wit; we have teenagers talking about their relationships. I would be tempted to call Red Glove melodrama but that would require it to be dramatic, this is more like relationship fan-fiction written by people who happened to enjoy White Cat.

Clearly aware that her characters have precious little to do in this book, Black throws Cassel a bone by having a couple of feds ask him to solve some disappearances. This might have kept the series ticking over by providing Cassel with an opportunity to use his skills in a small and self-contained plot-arc that would allow the series to tread narrative water without losing the gloriously swift pacing of the first book in the series. Unfortunately, it turns out that Cassel is the person responsible for the disappearances and it is patently obvious that this is the fact so rather than serving as an opportunity for Cassel to do stuff, this plotline becomes yet another thing for Cassel to ignore as he pointedly avoids either accepting the fact that he's a complete monster or attempting to atone for his past actions.

With existing ideas and characters remaining frustratingly under-developed, Red Glove fails to live up to the promise and energy of White Cat. Lacking in plot, lacking in theme, lacking in character and lacking in intelligence, this book is a crushing disappointment after the promise of the first book in the series.

Before I close this review, I would also like to draw attention to the fact that nowhere on the cover of this book is there a reference to the fact that it is part of a series. This is emerging as something of a trend in the publishing world as it is also true of Mira Grant's recent novel Feed. Red Glove does not work either as a standalone novel or as a novel that can be read out of sequence.

This is the second book in a series of at least three, if you buy this book without reading White Cat it will not make any sense to you and, in order to find out what happens at the end of the story, you will need to buy at least one more book after White Cat and Red Glove (Black Heart is scheduled for release in the US in May 2012). Because this book functions as the middle volume of a series, I can think of no possible justification for failing to label it as such. This trend for not making it clear that books are part of series is reprehensible and it needs to stop right fucking now.

Red Glove by Holly Black



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