I must have read an epic amount of terrible YA fiction recently because while Black Heart was far from the most amazing book I have ever read, it felt like avocado and tomato on toast after days gorging on sugared donuts. Only those who know how much I love avocado and tomato on toast will appreciate that I really did enjoy this – as much for everything it isn’t as for everything it is.
Which does, of course, make writing any sort of cohesive review difficult. Shouting “imperfect characters! Silly in a good way! Teenagers who aren’t fated to be together! Humour!” doesn’t exactly describe a story particularly well, so I’ll try and do a better job below, though really, the yelling above does adequately summarise this book’s charms.
Title: Black Heart
Author: Holly Black
Black Heart’s the third in Black’s Curseworkers trilogy, and, as usual, Cassel isn’t in a particularly good situation. The trilogy’s premise is that magic is present but illegal, and it always, always, has a price. Magic requires physical contact and so gloves are worn by all people at all times – this not only stops those with abilities using them, but also avoids people being discriminated against for their abilities. There are what sound an awful lot like prison camps in this world’s past, but the present operates on more of a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – so far, it seems to be doing alright.
Spoilers for the other titles in the trilogy begin here, so tread carefully over the next paragraph or two if you plan to read them soon.
The problem is that if something isn’t legal, the illegal form of it tends to flourish – this is where Cassel, Lila and their families come in. Both are the children of longstanding crime families, the magical mafia if you will, and Lila’s the mafioso’s daughter and heir. In the first book Cassel believed that he was essentially powerless – the only one in his family trying his hardest (in his own way) to fit in at boarding school because there wasn’t really a place for him in the magical world. Needless to say it was a shock to discover that a) he had magic, but his older brothers had made him forget it b) he was a transformation worker, an incredibly powerful form of curseworker c) his brothers had been using him and his abilities as an assassin for hire for years and d) his missing childhood friend was actually transformed by him. Into a cat.
Cassel in still adjusting – and the curve balls life keeps throwing him don’t make it any easier. As is Lila – several years as a cat can really mess with your perspective. And that’s without your ex-crush’s conwoman mother charming you into falling head over heels wi – well, that’s the second book. Go forth.
There is a central romance in Holly Black’s Curse Worker’s trilogy, but thankfully, it’s not a retch-inducing one. While it’s evident through the whole series that Cassel never has, and probably never will (at least in these books) love anyone other than Lila, he certainly doesn’t use this as a reason to gloss over her worst character traits – including the ability to contemplate homicide.
The reasons why they may not be able to be together are, despite their plot-twisty supernatural origins, not unfathomable. They’ve both hurt each other, and the reluctance of one to engage with the other feels like a reasonable response to the situations they found themselves in. There are always obstacles between protagonists and their “happily ever after”, but for once these obstacles didn’t seem like manufactured complications which could have been explained away if it wasn’t so important for the tension to remain ongoing till the end of the trilogy.
Even better? The romance, while an important part of the books and the lives of its characters,was far from being the focus. Black Heart has magical crime bosses, minority repression, FBI plots, boarding schools, conmen, blackmail, Bad Boys (who aren’t all bad), Good Girls (who aren’t all good), Damsels In Distress (who while distressed, aren’t exactly in need of rescuing) and her world building isn’t let down by her character development.
Holly Black’s characters are witty, but not unnaturally so, smart, but not superhuman – they can only work with the data in front of them and it’s not always enough to get them through. For all their magical abilities they feel real, consequentially so do the problems they face.
Throughout the novel Cassel, trained conman that he is, isn’t above letting us in on a few secrets to the trade. “Lies are simple,” he tells us “that’s what makes them easy to believe. The truth is complicated, and consequently, often unbelievable.” In Black Heart, the opposite is true – it’s the complicated, messy lives the characters live which lends it strength.