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White Cat
Holly Black
Gollancz paperback £10.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

In Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother (2011), Amy Chua writes of her attempts to give her daughter what she calls a strict 'Chinese' upbringing. In the Chua household, children were not allowed to watch TV, play video games, attend sleepovers or receive any grade other than an 'A'. Instead of being allowed to 'find themselves' through play and social interaction, Chua's daughters were sculpted according to a plan designed to aggressively maximise their potential and their chances in life.

When the book was previewed in The Wall Street Journal it ignited a firestorm of controversy that continues to burn several months later; many Americans praise the 'authoritarianism' of Chua's methods and suggest that American parents could stand to take a leaf out of her book while others are outraged at the way in which Chua effectively denied her daughters a childhood and the chance to choose what and who it is they want to become. But is it reasonable to mourn the person that we could have become but never did?

By taking such an aggressively interventionist approach to her children's development, Chua certainly denied them the power to choose their own paths but are the identities they wound up with really any less real than the fragile products of class, genetics and neurotic self-examination that usually pass themselves off as our identities? Holly Black's White Cat (the first volume in the Curse Worker series) examines this tension and concludes that our identities are fragile things indeed and, perhaps because of this, we will do almost anything to defend them.

Cassel Sharpe is the youngest son of a family of Curse Workers, humans born with the capacity to work one particular type of magic. Because Workers are both incredibly rare and incredibly dangerous, they have been oppressed and marginalised by normal human society forcing them to band together in what would later become criminal empires. Cassel's family have ties to the Zacharov family, they have been working for them for three generations but Cassel poses two problems to this relationship; firstly, he appears to have no magical powers at all and, secondly, he can remember killing his childhood sweetheart and the heir to the Zacharov criminal empire. Because of these 'little problems', Cassel's family are rather eager to keep him out of sight and out of the loop meaning that Cassel has spent most of his life as an outcast; an outsider to his family's schemes and an outsider to his regular human classmates who see him as tainted by his family's powers and criminal associations.

The novel begins with Cassel standing on a ledge in his pants, about to throw himself off the roof of his school. Reasonably enough, his school decide to send him home, returning Cassel to the somewhat awkward bosom of his family who are not too happy to have to deal with a moody teenager, and so they set him to clearing out his parents' old house. As Cassel digs through the detritus of his family's past he discovers a group of feral cats living in the barn and overhears snippets of conversation. Something is going on; something involving him.

Having grown up a normal human in a family of larger-than-life criminals, Cassel has long dreamed of acceptance and in order to attempt to gain the acceptance of his family (and his school-mates), Cassel has learned to use what mundane skills he has. Curse Worker or not, Cassel was born to con and as he uses his grifting skills to get re-instated in school and find out more about his family's plans, he stumbles across a number of buried truths. Evidently, the past is not as he remembers it and Cassel is not the person he thought he was. He is not the only mundane member of a magical family. He is not a friendless outsider at school. He is not the murderer of his childhood sweetheart. In fact, his childhood sweetheart Lila never died at all... she has been safe and sound and living in the barn. Lila is the white cat that keeps following him around.

White Cat is a book that asks how much power families should have over their junior members and whether it is ever okay to mould children into the shape that their families want and need them to be. Between the ages of 14 and 17, Cassel lived with the belief that he was a murderer and an outcast but in truth he was neither... it is just that his family needed him to believe that he was both of those things. They needed it in order to protect him, in order to protect themselves and in order to make themselves rich.

"Let me try to understand," Sam says. "You believe your brothers can potentially make you kill someone, but you're going to stick around to let them try. What the hell?"

"I believe," I say, "that I'm a very clever young man with two fantastically clever friends. And I further believe that one of those friends has been looking for an opportunity to display his expertise in fake firearms."
- page 261

Black uses two distinct sets of genre tropes to interrogate the ethics of this sort of familial psychological manipulation. The first is that of the confidence trick style of caper movie and the second is that of magical powers that allow people to erase, alter and create memories.

Black describes grifting in almost nostalgic terms. As the only mundane member of a magical family, Cassel adopts the con as a means of creating his own version of a super-power. He can't kill people with a touch like his grandfather, or make people fall in love like his mother, but he can think his way around people and set up elaborate scams that use their own greed to part them from their money. Cassel's uses of cons tend to be morally righteous and involve, most notably, getting himself let back into school after being unfairly kicked out and retrieving a cat that was erroneously sent to an animal shelter. These forms of manipulation are doubtless harmful in that they trick people into doing things they do not want to do, but Cassel presents them as ultimately acceptable because they depend for their success upon the character flaws of the marks; if people were not greedy, dishonest bigots then they would never be taken in by Cassel's schemes. The roguish honesty behind the con is what provides Cassel with both his personality and his charm, he's manipulative but he's got right on his side and so we can't help but like him.

The honourable dishonesty of grifting stands in stark counterpoint to the murky world of memory Workers. Black depicts memory work as almost cartoonish in its villainy, glossing over useful applications such as deleting traumatic memories in order to focus upon cases where memory Workers use their powers to force people to believe false things and forget who they really are. Indeed, when it turns out that Cassel's family have effectively deconstructed and reconstructed all of his memories multiple times we are rightly appalled but instead of allowing these two sets of genre tropes to form the basis for a clear moral distinction, Black sets about muddying the waters.

When Cassel is forced to get involved in family politics, he uses his grifting skills to force Workers to use their powers against themselves. Indeed, though Cassel does (somewhat predictably) turn out to have powers, the novel avoids the tired plot-device of having him use his newly found powers to solve all of his problems in a moment of magical self-expression. In fact, the denouement of the novel revolves around Cassel tricking another worker into using his own powers against himself thereby tarnishing Cassel's morally blameless grifting skills with the taint of evil magical manipulation. This muddying of the waters suggests that while manipulation may have the most selfless of motives and the purest of methods, it will always remain morally problematic.

The easiest lies to tell are the ones you want to be true. - page 292

The question of whether or not it is ever acceptable to manipulate someone into doing what you want them to do is rooted in the wider philosophical question of whether or not we possess a true self. If there is a true 'self' then psychological manipulation is an attack on us because it is making us act in a way that is untrue to our inner being. However, if there is no true self then manipulation is not so much an attack on the individual as an example of one person involving themselves in another person's decision-making processes. We do not take it as an attack upon us when we talk to someone about something and change our mind and so why should we take it as an attack on us if that person sets out to deliberately change our mind using secretive means?

The morality of psychological manipulation seems to depend upon our placing an absolute moral on psychological authenticity but the more we learn about human psychology, the more the concept of authenticity to a true inner self starts to look philosophically shaky. In the case of the Tiger Mother, we cannot really morn for the rights of her daughters because the identities of her children were still in the process of being formed; they had no 'real' self to subvert. Black suggests that a similar situation holds in the case of Cassel as, while Cassel is revealed to not be the person he thought it was, there is a substantial question mark hanging over the question of whether the vicious and merciless Cassel who appears at the end of the novel is any more 'real' than the ignorant and withdrawn Cassel constructed by his family.

Memory is slippery. It bends to our understanding of the world, twists to accommodate our prejudices. It is unreliable. Witnesses seldom remember the same things. They identify the wrong people. They give us the details of events that never happened. Memory is slippery, but my memories suddenly feel slipperier. - page 96

White Cat is a book that not only calls into question the relationship between our memories and our identity; it also seeks to undermine many of the ethical rules that depend upon a firm belief in a true inner self. By the end of the book, you will find yourself wondering who Cassel is and whether or not he is as sympathetic a character as the book's narration would have you believe. Its final gut-wrenching act of psychological manipulation drives home a powerful message: we cannot be certain of who we really are but we yearn for that certainty and will do anything to protect it.

White Cat - The Curse Workers 1




White Cat by Holly Black



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