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Literature / The Curse Workers

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"No-one at home is ever going to forget that Cassel is a killer. No-one at home is ever going to forget that he isnít a magic worker. And now he is being haunted by a white cat."

A series of YA novels by Holly Black. It includes White Catnote , Red Glove and Black Heart. The audio book of White Cat is read by Jesse Eisenberg.

This series contains examples of:

  • Ambiguously Brown: Cassel and his family. Even they don't know what ethnicity they are.
  • An Arm and a Leg: It's mentioned that in some areas outside the US, Workers sometimes have their arms cut off to prevent them from doing magic... though this doesn't stop Workers from learning how to use magic with their feet.
  • Anti-Magic: Certain mineral amulets can prevent a worker from affecting the wearer. Unfortunately, they tend to be one-use only, which is why Cassel stocks up on three in advance.
  • Ban on Magic: Magic has been illegal in the US since the 1930s. As with Prohibition, this lead to the rise of criminal syndicates built around an underground trade in magical services and the use of magic to aid in various criminal enterprises.
  • Being Evil Sucks: Growing up in the mob, being a con artist and being a secret assassin have led to Cassel being ridden with self-loathing and paranoia.
  • Blessed with Suck: All workers have blowback to varying extents, some of which can be crippling or even fatal. Having powers is as dangerous to the owner as it is to everyone else.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Death work blowback withers a part of the worker's own body; physical work blowback makes the worker feel weak and sick.
  • Con Man: Both Cassel and his mother are skilled confidence tricksters, and though his mom's a lot better at it thanks to her gifts as an emotion worker, Cassel is still quite effective through mundane methods.
  • Conspicuous Gloves: As the powers can only have an effect through skin-to-skin contact, everyone in this world wears gloves.
  • Consummate Liar: Barron. For good reason.
  • Demoted Memories: In Red Glove, Cassel realizes that something he remembers as a scene from a movie is an actual memory that Barron tampered with.
  • Differently Powered Individual: People with magical powers are commonly called "curse workers" or simply "workers"; the Technobabble term is "hyperbathygammic" or "HBG". "Heebiejeebies" is a somewhat derogatory term derived from the latter. Archaic terms include "theurgists" and "dab hands".
  • Emotion Control: Emotion working in a nutshell; on the upside, you have the ability to induce love, fear, hate, trust and all manner of other emotions in anyone you touch, but on the downside, the blowback gradually destroys your ability to regulate your own emotions.
  • Empathic Healer: Physical workers can heal injuries and cure or mitigate diseases, but the blowback makes them weak and sick.
  • Equivalent Exchange: The more you use your power, the more blowback affects you in a way directly related to your field of influence. For example, a luck worker that constantly decreases the luck of others will end up unlucky themselves; emotion workers lose control of their emotions; memory workers lose more of their memories for every memory they alter; death workers suffer necrosis for everyone they kill, and so on.
  • Evil Parents Want Good Kids: Cassel's grandfather laments not having kept his daughter out of the mob. By contrast, said daughter actively worked (in every relevant sense of the word) to initiate her own sons into the life.
  • Fantastic Racism: The general public fears workers due to their power and the strong connection between magic and organized crime, to the point that everyone takes it as a given that the mandatory hyperbathygammic testing law, if passed, would lead to workers being denied jobs and housing.
  • Forced Transformation: Lila spends most of the first book as a white cat, having been transformed by a brainwashed Cassel.
  • For Your Own Good: Everyone who was involved in hiding Cassel's power and assassination history from him insists that they did it to protect him.
  • Gambit Pileup: White Cat is essentially a head-on collision between multiple plans and agendas, including Cassel's attempts to find out who's messing with his head, Philip and Barron's attempts at The Perfect Crime, Lila's efforts to get Cassel to reverse her transformation - or kill him before he can be used to assassinate her father, and all the improvised counters to said plans.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Cassel's grandfather spends a lot of his time drunkenly grumbling about how stupid young workers are.
  • Handshake of Doom: Since magic can only be performed through skin-to-skin contact, gloves are endemic, bare hands are considered indecent, and people are very careful about handshakes - to the point that this trope is a plot point in the first book: Cassel is actually a Transformation Worker brainwashed into serving as an undetectable assassin; his handlers have cut a tiny hole in the finger of one of his gloves, so that when Cassel shakes hands with the target, he can touch their wrist just long enough to turn the victim's heart to stone.
  • It Runs in the Family: Working primarily seems to be a genetic factor, although it does seem to sometimes occur out of the blue.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: If you happen to read the dust-jacket to Red Glove before White Cat you're treated to the entire plot of the first book.
  • Lethal Harmless Powers: Dream working sounds perfectly benign, but it can easily be used to cause someone to sleepwalk off a roof.
  • Memory-Wiping Crew: Barron is a memory worker, and is most commonly employed in wiping any memories related to Cassel's assassination work. He isn't happy about it, even bitterly referring to himself as a cleanup crew.
  • Missing Mom: Subverted. Cassel's mom is absent for most of White Cat, due to being in prison. It doesn't seem to change her relationship with her children and she is out of prison at the end of White Cat and in Red Glove.
  • Nightmare of Normality: The big twist of White Cat is that Cassel isn't the token muggle of the family after all: he's actually a transformation worker, and has been brainwashed by his brothers into forgetting his powers - except on occasions when they need an assassin who can effectively kill people without leaving any kind of evidence. As such, reclaiming his powers and saving one of his past victims forms a major part of the story from then on.
  • Our Nudity Is Different: In the US, at least, the custom of wearing gloves to prevent surreptitious magic has been in place for so long that bare hands have become mysterious and titillating.
  • The Perfect Crime: Attempted by Barron and Phillip and Cassel in the backstory. Cassel is a transformation worker, so he can effectively kill people by turning them into inanimate objects; Barron can erase Cassel's memory and make him believe that he's a Muggle Born of Mages; by using this combination, Barron and Phillip can orchestrate several murders without leaving any kind of evidence, without having to get their hands dirty, and without anyone remembering the killings. It only goes wrong when Cassel turns Lila into a cat - meaning that she can use her own powers against Cassel, allowing him to realize that someone's been manipulating him.
  • Plagued by Nightmares: Nightmares about killing Lila haunt Cassel through half the first book until he discovers that he didn't kill her.
  • Power Limiter: Magic can only be used via skin to skin contact with the magic users hand and another person. Naturally everyone wears gloves to safeguard against this.
  • Rule of Seven: Seven types of magic.
  • Self-Surgery: After realizing that someone's been magically messing with his head, Cassel buys several Anti-Magic charms so he can protect himself in future - and to make sure that nobody notices the charms, he cuts a hole in his leg and inserts them under his flesh, with hydrogen peroxide as disinfectant. Ouch.
  • Shapeshifter Swan Song: Transformation Workers experience blowback in the form of random, uncontrollable shapeshifting, most of it incredibly disturbing both to the sufferer and the onlookers. It wears off relatively quickly, but it's still quite traumatic. Cassel experiences this twice in White Cat.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Daneca Wasserman, who proudly displays buttons expressing her feelings on various causes on her bag, leads the Wallingford branch of a worker rights youth group, and scolds Cassel for his indifference to politics.
  • Terminal Transformation: The rare Transformation Workers have the power to turn living beings into almost anything with a touch. Victims who have been transformed into animals can be restored, but those who've been changed into inanimate objects are dead from the moment of their transformation. It's for this reason that Barron and Phillip have brainwashed Cassel into serving as an assassin, as his powers allow him to kill anyone without leaving any kind of evidence.
  • Touch of Death: Death working; as with all forms of curse work, it can only be inflicted by skin-to-skin contact, resulting in people who've been touched by a Death worker instantly dropping dead.
  • The Transmogrifier: Transformation Workers are the rarest and arguably the most dangerous: their sole power is to transform their victims in almost any way - into other human beings, into animals, or into inanimate objects. People who are transformed into animals can be reverted to normal by the Worker responsible, but those who've been changed into objects are dead from the word go. The big twist of the first book in the series is that Cassel is a Transformation Worker that's been brainwashed into thinking that he's A Muggle Born of Mages; his brothers have been secretly using him as an assassin, employing the Objectshifting trick to eliminate targets without leaving evidence.
  • Violin Scam: Cassel needs to get a cat out of a shelter. He's under 18 and can't just adopt it, so his friend comes into the shelter claiming her expensive white cat is lost and offering a huge reward. Cassel then goes in and claims he has the missing cat, but will need a white cat for his little sister as a replacement. The shelter worker, thinking of the huge reward, is willing to skip the background check and give Cassel the cat, expecting Cassel to return later with the "missing" cat.

Alternative Title(s): White Cat