It’s impossible for anyone to read, watch, play, or experience everything media has to offer us these days. This is a space for us to fangirl over something you may have missed.
A librarian friend of mine and Curse Workers superfan turned me on to this series of YA books by Holly Black, author of The Spiderwick Chronicles and the recent (and excellent) The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, among other things. Black’s talents are such that I’d give a blanket recommendation to any of her works, even those I haven’t read, but the Curse Workers books — White Cat, Red Glove, and Black Heart — are, I think, perfect for the demographic that frequents Fantastic Fangirls. And here are seven reasons why!
1.) It’s basically an X-Men crime AU.
In the Curse Workers world, a certain segment of the population carries a gene that makes them “hyperbathygammic” – basically, in possession of mutant powers. These “workers,” as they’re known, fall into one of seven categories: luck workers, emotion workers, dream workers, physical workers, memory workers, death workers, and the ultra-rare transformation workers. These workers can “curse” other people, creating anything from bad luck to memory erasure to instant death, all with the brush of a finger against bare flesh.
As tends to happen in these kinds of scenarios, workers are hated and feared by the general population, and curse work was declared illegal in the early part of the 20th century. For a time, workers were kept in internment camps – and that’s where things got interesting. With no legal work open to them, many workers found themselves swept up into organized crime. The mobs got superpowered enforcers, the workers got a way to survive, and they’ve remained in a symbiotic relationship ever since, with no Professor Xavier around to provide an alternative career path.
The crime fiction tropes are always central in the Curse Workers books – each book is full of mystery, murder, and mafiosos. But the crime plots are inextricable from the supernatural plot, and following the protagonist, Cassel, the only non-worker in a family of worker criminals, is a bit like reading a noir take on Graydon Creed. It’s not hard to imagine this book as a comic, and that’s largely because…
2.) The worldbuilding is fantastic.
Beyond the complexities of the aforementioned plot elements, the world of the Curse Workers trilogy is fantastically well-realized. Though the books have a modern setting, they allude to over a century of alternate history, with the existence of workers changing many facets of daily life. The biggest and most obvious change is the presence of gloves: everyone in this world wears them, all the time, to protect themselves and each other. Since most workers aren’t open about their status, any bare hand is potentially dangerous, so people keep their hands covered up at all times. Black never lets us forget about the presence of the gloves and the ways in which they influence everything from fashion to pornography – in this world, a bare hand is much more scandalous and rare to see than bare breasts or genitalia.
Beyond the gloves, the representations of modern politics and activist movements help to give the world a broader scope beyond Cassel’s immediate problems. It’s not hard to imagine all of the other stories that could be told in this universe, about all the other people, workers and otherwise, who inhabit the world.
3.) The cast is diverse.
Don’t let this terrible original cover fool you – Cassel and his family are people of color. Their precise heritage is unknown, to the readers and to the characters themselves; Cassel’s grandfather has been deliberately circumspect about his own family history, and the family has been in America for at least a century. But Cassel repeatedly describes himself and his family as black-haired and brown-skinned, and he’s very conscious of the way his appearance affects those around him, making them suspicious of him even when he isn’t practicing con artistry.
One of the biggest complaints many people, myself included, have about stories with metaphorical “others” who are discriminated against is that, far too often, those others are part of the dominant group in every real-world way. Instead of pasting a metaphor for racism onto a white character, Black has made her characters targets of real-world and fictional-world prejudice alike. This is particularly effective because her metaphor is about people without other options being dragged into a life of crime, and thus casts a sympathetic eye on real-world gang dynamics and the effects of institutional racism and the cycle of poverty.
Cassel’s family makes up the bulk of the cast, but it’s also important to note that his best friend, Sam Yu, is Asian-American, and that the particular mob family his brother and grandfather work for, the Zacharov family, are Russian-American but never subjected to stereotyping or bad phonetic accents. And while all of the above may make the books sound completely dude-centric, important (and awesome) female characters do come into the fold as the series progresses. It’s A+ all around.
4.) The audio books are read by Jesse Eisenberg.
I understand this alone is a huge selling point for a certain segment of fandom. Beyond his fame, Eisenberg is a great audiobook reader, and his particular brand of dry sarcasm and slacker-genius is perfect for Cassel’s first person voice. I read the first two books in the series on paper but read the final book on audio, and I found both experiences equally satisfying. Plus, Eisenberg is a native of next-to-my-hometown East Brunswick, New Jersey, which is accent-appropriate, because…
5.) The books are set in New Jersey.
This may only be a selling point for me, but if you like a series with great sense of place, the Curse Workers books are for you. From Princeton to the Pine Barrens, Trenton to Newark, these books cover the whole state and use the locations to great effect, contrasting rich and poor areas and creating fictional locations (like the retired-worker town of Carney) that feel like they’d fit seamlessly into the actual state. The books travel from indoor flea markets/“dirt malls” to the bridges and tunnels into New York City and everywhere in between, offering up a portrait of the state that’s ironically much more nuanced and true-to-life than you’d find in more “realistic” mafia fiction set in New Jersey.
6.) The series is about trust, truth, and community.
The basic emotional arc of these books is that of a loner and black sheep who needs to figure out who to trust, what to believe, and how to let himself need other people. He’s essentially a good-hearted kid with a combination of childhood indoctrination and scarring past experience that’s made him suspicious, defensive, self-hating, and obsessed with appearances. Watching him make friends and learn to let his guard down is one of the great pleasures of the series, but it’s also fascinating to explore the reasons he is the way he is and the very reasonable thought processes that lead to his loss of trust in the world and people around him. The books aren’t didactic, and they never come down fully on the side of criminals or the side of crimefighters; the narrative encourages Cassel and the readers to follow their own moral compasses and make whatever decisions they need to make as a result.
This isn’t to say the books aren’t fun – there’s a lot of joy to be found in Cassel’s accomplishment of a particularly clever or tricky con, and there are some shenanigans sprinkled throughout the high tensions and murder mysteries. But the books are perhaps most pleasurable when they take on tough moral dilemmas with no right answer. These are YA books that never talk down to their target audience.
7.) The prose and first person voice are excellent.
I’ll end this post with a short excerpt from the first book, White Cat, so you can see just how great the writing and voice are. A book with such a great high concept could still fall down in the actual writing, but Black’s prose soars:
The last time I was in the headmistress’s office, my grandfather was there with me to enroll me at the school. I remember watching him empty a crystal dish of peppermints into the pocket of his coat while Dean Wharton talked about what a fine young man I would be turned into. The crystal dish went into the opposite pocket.
Wrapped in a blanket, I sit in the same green leather chair and pick at the gauze covering my palm. A fine young man indeed.
And fine books these are. My aforementioned librarian friend has bought extra copies for her own library because she recommends them so much — to fans of urban fantasy, crime, audio books, and even romance. Now, I’ve passed that recommendation on to you all. Check them out on Amazon or your preferred book seller — or library!