The Big Idea: Holly Black

Here at the Scalzi Compound, we’re big fans of Holly Black, not just as a human being (we’re pals, she’s awesome) but because she’s consistently taking the idea of fantasy in YA and twisting it in new and fun ways. The latest twist: White Cat, which imagines a world like our own in which magic is not “magical” in the usual adjectival sense, but is something a little grittier, a little seedier, and not necessarily something you’d want to play with. To which I say: coool. Here’s Holly to break it down for you.


If you know me from my Spiderwick Chronicles or Modern Faerie Tale series, you might not guess my love for heist movies, noir and cons. From Rififi to The Sting to Ocean’s Eleven, from Hammett to Chandler to Mosley, I love it all. I love the snappy dialogue, the twists, and the intricacy of the plots.

My big idea for White Cat came from me sitting around thinking about different models for magic. I had worked out a little of the book at that point, enough that I knew I was writing about a charming young con artist named Cassel, so I wanted something appropriate to the mood of his world.

Magic in novels needs some organizing principle. There are solitary wizards who resemble hermits, magic schools and universities, wizards teaching apprentices in the model of a medieval tradesperson, councils of mages not unlike a corporate board of directors, and large baroque organizations of wizards so full of rules and ceremonies that they might be modeled on the structure of a church. None of those quite fit. Then I thought:

What if the magic in this world worked like organized crime?

From there I decided that for that to work, I needed two things (a) for everyone in the world to be aware of magic and (b) for magic to be illegal.

I would have one in a thousand people have the ability to do curse magic. That way, everyone could potentially know a worker or two, but they’d still be pretty uncommon. An average high school might have one to two workers enrolled there. A large university might have as many as a hundred, between students, faculty and other staff. Given the rate of Scalzi’s traffic to Whatever, nearly fifty of you reading this would be curse workers.

Of the total workers, most are luck workers. The rest work dreams, physical curses, emotional curses, memory, death or, very rarely, transformation. To actually curse another person, one has to have bare hand (the curse worker) to bare skin (the victim) contact. And, just to balance out the benefits of having magic, all curse work results in blowback. That is, some of the curse rebounds on the curse worker. As Cassel’s grandfather, a retired death worker with blackened and rotted fingers, tells us, “every curse works the worker.”

Curse magic was outlawed in the United States in 1929. Once it became outlawed, just like Prohibition led to the rise of the five big crime families in New York, the ban on curse magic would lead to magical power being controlled by the mob. Black market demands would keep curse work profitable and I would have the world I wanted to play in.

The hardest, but also most fun part, was expanding on how having magic around would change society.

– In a world where hands touching skin could be dangerous, people would want each other to wear gloves. Thus everyone wears gloves when they are in public. If you saw someone barehanded, it would be like they were carrying a knife; they might have a good reason, but you’d still want to cross the street. Since bare hands are seldom seen, they’ve become objects of fantasy. Magazines features fold-outs of scantily clad girls without any gloves. The ultimate sign of trust between any two people would be shaking bare hands.

– Amulets that protect against curse work (each one cracks after it wards off a curse) are sold at drug stores and bodegas, near the counter along with the mints and lighters. It’s hard to know if you’re buying a good one or a dud, especially since curse workers themselves are needed to make the amulets, and they mostly don’t identify themselves.

– Despite being illegal, people want luck workers at weddings and baptisms and for times when things aren’t going so well. So hiring curse workers for minor things occupies that gray area of illegal things that everyone does anyway, like speeding. With the help of my publisher, I even mocked up what a subway ad in this world might look like:

Being born a curse worker runs in families, but can show up in people not immediately related to curse worker too. Crime families aren’t families in the traditional sense, but made up of magical recruits initiated into “the life.”

Cassel Sharpe, our protagonist, isn’t a curse worker himself, but he comes from a family of curse workers and con artists. His grandfather and brother work for the crime families, his father was a minor-league grifter, and his mother is in jail for working some guy into signing over all his money.

Cassel is trying to stay on the straight and narrow at Wallingford Preparatory – no cons, only a little bit of forgery and some bookmaking. His memories haunt him, though, especially his memory of killing his best friend, Lila, who he loved, three years ago. He has no idea why he would have done that. When he wakes up on the roof of his dorm room with no idea how he got there, out of a dream of chasing a white cat, he begins to believe that his memories are hiding more than they’re revealing. And so Cassel begins to investigate his past and figure out who he really is and what he’s really done.


White Cat: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of White Cat. Read Holly Black’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.

25 Comments on “The Big Idea: Holly Black”

  1. Holly is a fun writer in the Charles de Lint tradition of mixing fantastical elements with a contemporary, modern world. Highly recommended to begin with, and I love a good crime/mystery novel, so I’m looking forward to reading this soon.

  2. This sounds awesome and I’ve loved her Modern Faerie books so I can’t wait to read this!

  3. Damnit, Scalzi, my to-read pile is getting out of hand – can we have some Big Idea authors whose books I do not want to read? A short series of “Bad Ideas”, perhaps?

    Ok. I’ve added Ms. Black’s book to my (virtual) to-read pile. I, too, am a sucker for caper/heist films and novels.

  4. That sounds awesome! Amazon one-clicked.

    I gotta stop reading the Big Idea columns, I’m buying too many books.

  5. OK, the book sounds interesting. But I’m having a hard time swallowing our host’s presentation:

    “[Holly Black]’s consistently taking the idea of fantasy in YA and twisting it in new and fun ways. The latest twist: White Cat, which imagines a world like our own in which magic is not “magical” in the usual adjectival sense, but is something a little grittier, a little seedier, and not necessarily something you’d want to play with.”

    What, you mean, like lots of writers have used fantasy in YA novels since, oh, at least the original Earthsea trilogy? In the 1960s? I don’t want to sound too jaded but, hey, let’s give Ursula K. Le Guin her dues when it comes to YA and fantasy!

  6. My daughter just started reading this. She was going to read the third book in Patterson’s ‘Maximum Ride’ series but confessed to me that she really, REALLY wanted to read ‘White Cat’ first. She’s enjoying it a great deal, so far.

  7. Irène:

    Really? I write an introduction in a broad and general way so as not to give away details that the author reveals in her Big Idea, and you want to snipe at it for being broad and general? That’s a brave choice, that is.

    I think you might want to ratchet down your snarklicious outrage a couple of notches.

    Edited to add: I’m apparently slightly cranky this morning, so it might not be the best time to pick a fight with me on something trivial.

  8. This is completely right up my alley- added to the “to-read” pile. I’m trying not to get crushed under it’s weight, with marginal success.

  9. I almost shudder each time I see a new “Big Idea” entry. Scalzi keeps introducing me to books and authors that I would otherwise likely never have come across. I think the “Big Idea” is a great idea itself and is clearly working. I still feel a bit Pavlovian however each time I push the “Buy It Now with 1-Click” button at

    My to-read pile continues to grow and I despair of ever reading it all (I’m not getting any younger, you know), but on the other hand, it gives me a good feeling to know there are so many good books just waiting to be read.

    Which is a long way of saying that I just added White Cat to the pile. Thanks.

  10. Organized crime running magic. Now that’s an awesome premise.

    I forget who wrote it, but someone back in the forties or fifties took the gun control tact with magic. Their premise was “If magic was outlawed, only outlaws would have magic.”

    I think it was Heinlein, but I never got to read the book.

  11. I missed my stop reading this book on the subway. When I surfaced halfway across the city, my first thought was “Yay! Now I get to read all the way back!”

  12. Chiming back in to mention that the mock subway ad is nifty, and was part of the reason I decided to buy.

  13. What an awesome twist on the structure of a magical society. This description of the world just boosted White Cat to the top of my to-read pile… can’t wait.

  14. Not something that would (or should) be mentioned in a YA novel, but in this world gloveless hand jobs would be a very expensive, and highly sought prostitution service.

  15. I am a large fan of Holly Black, since I first read Tithe. I love the concept of the faerie world mixing and trying to survive in our modern world. I really love the mix of urban grittiness and darkness in her stories. I enjoyed reading about how the magic world of White Cat is set up and the idea process behind the book. I cannot wait to read this book!

  16. I love Ursula LeGuin but I can’t think of two worlds more different than the Curse Workers’ universe and Earthsea. I wouldn’t characterise Earthsea as gritty or noir, even though the magic of Earthsea has its dark side. For one thing, it’s written by LeGuin, which means her personal philosophy–not particularly noir–takes centre stage. LeGuin is a great author and I do like her writing, but not nearly as much as I like other authors who may not be as great but are less didactic.

    “Magic has a price” is absolutely not a new idea, but LeGuin didn’t invent that either. Most fairy tales and folklore about magic do tell us that magic comes with a price tag. Comic book/AD&D magic that comes at no great personal cost to the caster is actually a much newer concept.

    Earthsea is a world that is very definitely not ours, nor a world with modern technology; the Curse Workers’ world is very similar to our own, with a lot of the same technology.

    It’s the world of White Cat that is a new thing. I like noir, dark fantasy and people who desperately want to be good and do right but haven’t the first idea how (or don’t think they can), and this book made me very happy.

    Too many people confuse “dark fantasy” with “stories involving lots of rape, slavery, and cardboard villains who drag their knuckles a lot yet have mysteriously acquired loads of followers and political force”. That kind of evil is easy to hate, but hard to believe in–and more importantly, not very interesting. And there are way too many people who think “noir” can’t be separated from the misogyny of the mid-20th century whether or not it’s actually set in that era.

    I know that Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan will never disappoint me that way. :) And I will of course be very pleased to have other authors who manage to do similar things pointed out to me, if I am in fact unaware of them.

  17. Kim Beattie: My to-read pile continues to grow and I despair of ever reading it all

    Ha, me too! Fortunately I’m getting laid off on Friday, and I expect my 25 weeks of severance pay will go a long way towards giving me all the time I want to read the books on my list. :)

  18. Oooh, I have an ARC of this. Guess it just got bumped to the top of the pile :)

  19. Haha @ Ilya! I must say, that’s immediately what I thought, too. The hand-prostitutes would probably have to work through special agencies that guaranteed they were not curse workers.

  20. @Krista or just imagine luck workers as hand-prostitutes. Sounds like a lucrative business (and a euphemism, heh) to me

  21. This book crossed my desk a few days ago and I flipped through the pages, thinking it might be a great book to get for my 14 year old son. I read the entire thing myself.

    It was a definitely a different take on magic works and the con game plot was pretty nifty. The whole crime family dynamic was a twist, which took me a little while to wrap my brain around, but I’m old so that’s not the books fault.

    Passing it to the kids now.

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