The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

What Is All This Sweet Work Worth... (Review: Red Glove by Holly Black)

Red Glove (Curse Workers, #2)Red Glove
Holly Black
Gollancz 2011

Red Glove is the second book in the Curse Workers series by Holly Black. If you have not read the first book (White Cat) then this review will contain spoilers. You have been warned.

After the startling, transforming (yep, I went there) and violent events of White Cat, Cassel Sharpe is surely due a break. Reeling from the manipulation he suffered by his brothers’ hands, he’s spent the summer with his erratic mother, always on the look out for the next con, grifting their way through hotels and rich guys like in a manner reminiscent of John Cusack and Angelica Huston. On his return to Wallingford, school for the privileged/smart/possibly criminal, he hopes for some normality but before long the feds are knocking at his door – his brother is dead and they want Cassel working the case. The thing is, the ever present criminal element of the Curse Workers (which seems to be, er, almost all of them) also have stakes in Cassel. With his transformative powers of interest to all, Cassel has some interesting choices to make… not least to do with Lila, crime lord's daughter, erstwhile murder victim (not to mention cat) and the love of Cassel’s life. But wait, Lila loves him too! How beautiful, how touching, how perfect! Except, of course, it’s not…

When first encountered in White Cat, Cassel Sharpe wasn’t in the healthiest of mental places. While somewhat discomfited that he was the only non-worker in an acclaimed family of curse workers/mobsters he was also tortured by the confusing yet indubitable memory of killing the girl he loved two years previously. Red Glove finds Cassel no less conflicted albeit for a host of different reasons. With both the mob boss Zacharov and the authorities courting him Cassel is once again forced to take a difficult look at himself, his family and his future. As in White Cat, Cassel is aware that his natural path would be to get in with the most powerful crime family by whatever means yet he doesn’t want to be, well, bad. He’s a cleverly written character who, while well intentioned, often believes himself to be wicked and clearly thrives on the thrill of the con. In Red Glove, Holly Black has cleverly added yet more complications in the now human form of Lila, the girl whom Cassel loves and who claims to love him but whose feelings he cannot trust. All of these elements render Cassel's decision making process somewhat protracted, often confusing but always real. Cassel could easily be one of these dreadfully angst written characters, wrestling with his conscious (or, God forbid, his eternal soul – I am so over that), but Black has given him a sly humour, relatively easygoing manner and some occasional downright boyishness that make him not only incredibly enjoyable to read but also give him one of the best male voices in current YA fiction. He’s one of my personal favourites, mainly because he’s just so damn believable.

Other characters in the book are as interesting as they were in White Cat, with perhaps the exception of the cursed Lila who, mostly, is relegated to delicate swooning and love-sick misery. Actually, that makes her pretty interesting too come to think of it. However, the stand out bit player is Cassel’s mother. A truly terrifying yet utterly delightful character, reading her is rather like walking a knife edge and I hope to see more of her conniving, manipulative and oddly loving interplay in the next instalment. Daneca is another character who becomes increasingly uncomfortable to read over the course of the book – it seems that everyone in Cassel’s world is harbouring one secret or another… except perhaps Sam, who is as solid, sensible and loveable as ever.

Plot wise, Red Glove is at once as simple and as complex as White Cat was. The central plot strand concerns Cassel looking into his brother's murder and this works well as a standard murder mystery. However, it is the sub plots that are truly intriguing. Primarily, there is the conflict caused by Lila’s curse – particularly in light of the fact that Cassel’s mother placed it upon her, effectively cursing her own son in the process. There are then further strands regarding the authorities use of Curse Workers, an anti-worker Senator and his dubious Proposition 2 and the prejudice on both sides of the worker/non-worker divide.

The strength of Red Glove, as with White Cat, is the realisation of an utterly recognisable yet also fantastical world. While Cassel’s interactions with the FBI hold the familiarity of a million cop shows, his dealings with his mother, Zacharov and Lila bring to mind old time mobsters, red lipstick, tackily opulent hotels and glamorous deceit. It is to Black’s credit that she can evoke both modern and historic criminality in her cleverly rendered parallel universe. As with reading White Cat, it defies belief that the writer of the pleasant yet ultimately bland Tithe series has been able to create such a rich, witty and darkly violent world. Red Glove is a worthy second book in Black’s Curse Worker series and I am sure that the third and final instalment will be more than worth the wait.

Red Glove is available now. Thanks to the team at Bookbitz for providing me with a copy of this title to review.
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