Black Heart (Curse Workers Series #3) is the third and, thus far, final volume in Holly Black’s Curse Workers series, which mixes magical powers with con artists and mobsters. The first volume, White Cat, introduced Cassel, a troubled young man in a family of grifters, all possessing magical gifts except for him. In the world of the Curse Workers, there are six gifts (or curses) conveyed by the power of touch. Memory workers can alter, erase, or implant memories. Luck workers can build or destroy good fortune. Physical workers can heal or harm the physical body. Emotion workers can alter perceptions and moods. Death workers have the power to kill with a simple touch. But Cassel turns out to have the sixth and rarest gift: the ability to transform himself or others into any object he pleases.
But every action has a consequence, and magic workers are subject to "blowback" resulting from the use of their magic. Cassel’s own grandfather, a death worker, loses a finger with every kill. His brother is slowly losing his memories the more he alters the memory of others. As for Cassel’s glamorous, but extremely unstable mother, Cassel can’t trust that she won’t work her emotional manipulation on him or those he most loves.
Over the past two books, Cassel’s loyalty is tested when he discovers his own family has been manipulating him into using his powers to perform mob hits, then changing his memories so he cannot remember his actions. How Cassel comes to uncover this mystery --- along with the various tricks and con jobs he uses to get him there --- is one of the primary pleasures of the Curse Workers series. At the end of the second book Red Glove Cassel turns himself over to federal agents in return for immunity for his crimes. As Black Heart opens, Cassel and his brother Barron, are undergoing training to become government agents. "Honestly, undercover's just like being a con man,” Cassel narrates. “Same techniques. Identify the target. Befriend. Then betray."
While always a popular format for publishers, YA literature has exploded with supernatural series. Many of these are now drawing to an end, leaving readers wondering what to read next. Curse Workers is unique in that other than the powers conveyed by touch, it does not contain supernatural elements. Its con artist/mobster angle set it apart from a field crowded with supernatural creatures and love triangles. But for me, the quality of a series can only be assessed once one has read the last book. I am not the only reader who has been disappointed by series that have grown stale before they end, or become saddled with ludicrous endings. In this regard, Curse Workers holds up, the unresolved tension of Cassel’s loyalties and his thwarted romance with Lila, the mob boss’s daughter, are held to the very end.
One of the other aspects of Curse Workers that has set it apart from other YA series is its moral ambiguities. Part of this is because Curse Workers is written like a teen noir and adheres to the conventions of the noir genre. As is the case with adult noir, the primary protagonist is implicated in the crime in which he is investigating. It involves the criminal underworld. And it carries with it an attitude of moral ambiguity as the protagonist brushes against the dark side of the human nature. Towards the end of Black Heart Cassel meditates on the following as he’s trying to figure out if his family or the federal agency is lying to him:
"I don't know who the good guys are anymore.... I thought that the people I grew up around --- mostly criminals --- were different from regular people. Certainly different from cops, from federal agents with their shiny bages. I thought grifters and con men were just born bad. I thought there was some inner flaw in us. Something corrupt that meant that we'd never be like other people--- that the best we could do is ape them.... But now I wonder --- what if everyone is pretty much the same and it's just a thousand small choices that add up to the person you are? No good or evil, no black and white, no inner demons or angels whispering the right answers in our ears…. Just us, hour by hour, minute by minute, day by day making the best choices we can... The thought is horrifying. If that's true, then there's no right choice. There's just choice."
The suggestion in this statement is that choice is reactive and reductive, that it does not signify a larger moral choice. Despite the noir conventions of the series, I couldn’t disagree more, Cassel’s "just choice" to me is the building blocks out of which we build character and a larger moral standing as individuals and as a society. While I applaud the refusal of Curse Workers to bow to the convention of good vs. evil --- the idea that the balance of the world hangs on the balance of the actions of one Chosen character --- I feel there is something more here that needed to be more thoroughly explored.
One of the background conflicts of the series has been the mistrust and criminalization of the gifts that some of the persons in society possess. This is the reason everyone wears gloves and amulets --- to prevent being "worked" by those who might not have their best interests in mind. But we also discover in Black Heart that at one point workers were rounded up and segregated into camps. In a subplot, Cassel is trying to prevent the criminalization of workers from happening again. As he puts it, "The thing about curse magic being illegal is that it turns everyone who uses it into a criminal."
We also discover that there is a black market trading in worker children who are sold to buyers interested in using them for their special powers. This trade is illegal and exploitative, not unlike the sex trade in our world. Children are used and then abandoned, and their status as workers makes them both valuable, controversial, and difficult to protect. When a worker in this situation approaches Cassel for help --- without being open about her motives --- Cassel must make a choice. Don’t tell me that there isn’t a right or wrong choice in this situation. Or that, however, difficult there aren’t choices that are going to create a world that is fairer or more free for the people who inhabit it.
The problem with curse magic being illegal is not just that it turns everyone who USES it into a criminal. It turns everyone who HAS it into a criminal, whether they use it or not. And the criminalization of something innately born --- civil rights come to mind here --- is always a travesty against justice. It brought to mind some of the great writers and thinkers who went against the grain of their time. In the words of Henry David Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience, in which he urged people to break unjust laws (in this case, those that related to slavery):
"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.… where the State places those who are not with her, but against her --- the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence."
I will not tell you what Cassel chooses, and I’ve tried to be intentionally vague about various plot points and turns within these novels so that you can enjoy reading them for yourself. But part of the reason I raise the question of choice is that I wanted Curse Workers to ask the same questions more vehemently and more loudly. Whether there are more adventures in store for Cassel, or whether Holly Black’s foray into this world is finished, the question that awaits every young reader is what impact the results of their choices will have, even amidst their ordinary, everyday, lives.
Want to keep up with reviews, and all of Barnes & Noble’s exclusive reviews, authors interviews, videos, promotions, and more? Please follow us on Twitter: @BN
You must be a registered user to add a comment here. If you've already registered, please log in. If you haven't registered yet, please register and log in.