This is the second book in the Curse Workers series. As such, it almost certainly contains spoilers for the first, White Cat (which was awesome).
We left Cassel Sharpe having discovered that he is not only a worker – possessed of magic – but the mightiest of all workers, capable of transformation magic. He had also discovered that his brothers had been using him as a tool for murdering people, that he had turned his best friend into a cat (which is better than having killed her, which he had thought), that she has now been cursed to love him, and that life is not, actually, going to be easier now that he is really part of the family. I think it’s fair to say that White Cat was a moderately dark book. It’s also fair to say that Red Gloves is, too. It’s not like things really can improve when you’re regarded suspiciously by most people at school, you’re in love with someone who’s forced to love you, your mother encourages you to help her con people, and you can’t trust either of your brothers. Oh, and your grandfather is a death worker, magic is illegal, and the mob wants a piece of you.
This is definitely a sequel. You could probably get by without knowledge of White Cat, but it would likely drive you a bit nuts. And rightly so; the power dynamics of the Sharpe family, and interactions with the Zacharov family, were neatly set up there and carried through here. (Also, at under 300 pages and a ripping read, it’s not like it would be a chore.) Those dynamics are fundamental to the plot of this story because when Cassel’s oldest brother, Philip, is murdered, both the Feds and the mob (with magic being criminal, of course there’s an underworld) come calling, wanting Cassel’s help and/or connivance. Cassel has to figure out how to deal with both sides of the law, not get kicked out of school, not get his mother sent back to jail, and how exactly to cope with Lila-in-love. It would be nice to know who is actually responsible for Philip’s death, too. There are some amusing moments in this book, mostly thanks to the witty banter that Black pulls out, but it is no light-hearted romp. The problems Cassel faces cannot be dismissed with witty banter and a clever con, much as he might like to.
I saw someone describe this as a ‘slice of life’ narrative, and that’s pretty accurate. There’s a fair bit of what could be seen as downtime – it’s not an action-on-every-page thriller, by any means. There’s having dinner, and doing homework, and catching up with friends. But neither is that dead time, because it’s developing characters, and the characters are a large chunk of what is so appealing about this series. Cassel himself is a very believable teen. His angst is real and heartfelt but also not overwhelming – broody Cassel never lasts that long; his family and friend relationships are appropriately messy and difficult to navigate. His school friends, Sam and Daneca, continue to play a large part in his life – helping, hindering, comforting, playing fall-guy. Their relationship also changes, separate from Cassel’s traumas. And then there’s Lila, who although central to White Cat in so many ways – her ‘death’ obsessing Cassel no end – hardly developed as a character at all, for obvious reasons. She gets much more of a showing here. Her awareness of the love-curse and her struggles with it are fundamental to much of Cassel’s own experiences. She doesn’t have much of a life apart from him, which makes sense in context, although towards the end there are some intriguing indications of What Might Be. In terms of minor characters, we get much more Mother Sharpe, which is fun if at times rather disturbing – the opportunities for emotion workers to be seriously creepy are legion. There wasn’t enough Grandpa for my liking, but I guess you can’t have everything.
The wider world of magic prohibition is slightly expanded in this volume, although the focus is still fairly tightly on Cassel and his issues. The main problem facing workers in New Jersey is a new proposal that would see everyone tested to find out whether they are hyperbathygammic – magical. The question then of course is how, or whether, that information would be kept private – and the fear is that the government would use that knowledge for nefarious purposes. There are overtones of the concerns raised by comics such as X-Men, of course, as well as other more general concerns about what the government (and other agencies, hello Faceblah) might do with personal information. There’s a very pertinent discussion of politics within this riveting fantasy.
I can’t wait for the third book.