“Red Glove” is the second book in Holly Black‘s newest trilogy, “The Curse Workers.” This reader admits that she did not read its prequel, “White Cat”; she is usually fastidiously sequential where series are concerned, but a free review copy of this recent release was too good an offer to pass up. Black has, over the past decade, gained a formidable reputation in the world of YA urban fantasy, and the premise of “Red Glove” — magical mobsters in an America where magic is widespread but illegal, a newly magical boy recruited by both the mob and the Feds — was undeniably intriguing.
Cassel Sharpe is a member of a powerful but persecuted minority, the curse workers, and until recently thought he was the only non-magical member of a worker (magical) family. As it turns out, his brother Barron has been tampering with Cassel’s memories, using him to commit crimes he can’t remember. Cassel is actually the rarest and most powerful worker of them all; he can turn anything, including people, into something else — people such as Lila Zacharov, mafia princess and the girl of his dreams.
Lila is heiress to the Zacharov crime syndicate, one of the most powerful worker families in America. She was the quintessential girl next door, and way out of Cassel’s league, until Cassel’s mother, an emotion-worker, cursed her to love him. It’s a present, she says, a present Cassel desperately wants but can’t accept, because he knows it’s fake. Just like the memories he does have are fake, including the one he has of murdering Lila. She’s alive, having recovered from being turned into a cat, and has she just transferred to his boarding school. Her crime boss father, as it happens, is trying to recruit Cassel into the Zacharov mob. Meanwhile, federal agents take an interest in Cassel, whom they believe can help them infiltrate the mob and solve a string of murders, including that of his other brother Philip. The catch? Cassel doesn’t know — doesn’t remember, thanks to Barron — if he killed any of these people himself, or if they’re even dead in the first place.
Cassel is the sort of a-bit-too-good-to-be-true antihero whom teenaged girls fall for in droves: the bad boy who secretly wants to be good. He’s a dangerous, troubled eighteen-year-old from a dysfunctional family, caught between a rock and a hard place, who has every reason to give in to the more powerful forces influencing his life — but he doesn’t. He could sleep with Lila — it would be easy, since she’s cursed — but he doesn’t, because he knows it’s not fully consensual. He could just join the mob — but he’s not sure he wants to kill. He has morals; we’re not sure where they come from, considering his questionable upbringing, but he has them.
The supporting cast is, for the most part, just as well-realized, making the duds stand out more. His best friends Sam and Daneca are not just sidekicks — they have their own issues, their own secrets, their own lives. Lila is predictably lovelorn — not a problem in this case, because she’s cursed — and lives with it, carrying out her other roles as a student, magic worker, and future mob boss with aplomb. Cassel’s family is more one-dimensional; his mother is a femme fatale, wooing rich men for their money, and his brother is equally manipulative and self-serving, but little else. The reader is not meant to like them, and doesn’t, but the Sharpes don’t leave much of any impression — there were likely some character-building scenes in the first book, but what we get in this one is a detailed but hollow sketch of a family.
Even, or especially, without having read the first book, this reader can tell that “Red Glove” suffers from a mild case of “middle book syndrome.” “White Cat” set up the plot, the last book (tentatively titled “Black Heart”) will resolve the conflicts, but in “Red Glove,” while the water is muddied and side-plots are spun, the story doesn’t advance as much as it ought to, seemingly because there might not otherwise be enough action left to warrant book three. Much of it is tied up in backstory; too many of the most important plot points are retrospective. Cassel investigates his past, but spends the entire book prevaricating about his future. It is a testament to Holly Black’s authorial skill that she can keep the reader interested regardless.
Ultimately, the world and the premise of “The Curse Workers” trilogy is fascinating, in a noir-fiction-meets-psychological-thriller-meets-“The Sopranos” kind of way, and that’s what will keep the readers coming. (That, and Cassel himself, for the fangirl set once they’ve matured beyond “Twilight”-mania.)