Note: This review contains spoilers of The Curse Workers Book 1, The White Cat.
When I read Holly Black\’s The White Cat, the book that preceded The Red Glove, I was at first a little disappointed. Having read her exquisite book about the faerie world, Tithe, and the similar Valiant, I was hoping for more of the same. The Curse Workers books are in an entirely different mould, and a masculine mould at that. I also felt initially that the concept behind the books was a little ordinary. The hero, Cassel Sharpe, is at boarding school, in an alternate version of our world where, although some people have magic powers, magic was banned in 1929. This banning of magic isn\’t a problem for Cassel, because unlike the other members of his family, he has no powers. Of course we just know he\’ll turn out to be something special, and eventually it\’s revealed that his family have hidden this truth from him.
We know that his grandfather is a death worker; one brother, Philip, is a physical worker (basically a thug), while the other, Barron is a memory worker. His mother uses her abilities as an emotion work to manipulate everyone, including the family, in an effective display of con artistry. These skills and other magical abilities (such as luck work and dream work) are bought and sold on a magical black market. Cassel discovers that he is a once-in-a-generation transformation worker, who has the power to transform any object into another.
Transforming a living person into an inanimate object is as good as killing them, so his skills are in demand by the disreputable. In The White Cat, he realises that rather than murdering his friend and crush Lila, as he had been “worked” to believe, he transformed her into the white cat of the title.
The Red Glove continues this intricate plotline. Lila is the daughter of crime boss Zacharov, who is aware that Philip and his nephew Anton have tried to have him assassinated in a hostile takeover. When Philip is murdered, suspicion falls on Zacharov, Lila and a number of other players. Although magic is a key element of the Curse Worker books, they are principally crime novels. The Red Glove is part whodunit, part organised crime thriller, with its prominent families who sell magical services and use curse works to threaten, maim, kill or control others. There are dirty deals and double crosses, and it is more The Godfather than Harry Potter.
Once I came to realise this was the intention, I enjoyed the books a lot more. I was no longer expecting magical spells and showy tricks, but guns, blood and betrayal, and The Red Glove didn\’t disappoint. It takes a clever approach and makes a crime novel into something accessible and appealing. Like the best crime novels, these books are also about relationships. Cassel\’s mother has “worked” Lila to love him. So Cassel needs to resist Lila, even though he loves her. He also both loves and hates his brothers, who like his mother, deceive and use him. Their betrayal makes it hard for him to trust others, even his best friend
There are broader themes here about identifying, labelling and condemning people. Workers are social outcasts; forced into crooked lives because the law makes them criminals, they can only reveal who they are to people they trust. Proposition 2, which involves testing people for worker abilities, has echoes of Nazi Germany (which was also similarly echoed in the Uncanny X-Men series). And amidst all of this, Cassel finds himself dodging crime families and the FBI while trying to find out who he is, good or evil, avoiding those who want to misuse his powers and at the same time resisting temptation himself.
Complex and multi-layered, The Red Glove will make you ask yourself if you could resist using the power that Cassel has in his hands.
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