I offer up White Cat as evidence.
Holly Black and I have gone through the same dance I perform with most other authors. I pick up a book by her. I skim through it. I decide it Has Promise and carry it home with me, only to abandon it within the wobbling stack of books already beside my desk. (No, it doesn't look any better than last week.) Due to an impending fine/someone else actually wanting to pay attention to it/an Act of God, I'm forced to give it back to the library. Some days later, I return to said library, notice it and pick it up again.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
In this case, I was especially leery of White Cat because I've only once attained reader nirvana (or something close to it in the middle of a particularly loud and "swinging" wedding reception) with a sample of Black's writing - a piece in which a young Asian girl is forced to barter with an "evil" spirit in order to keep her sister from languishing away painfully due to unrequited love. Good stuff, really. But her faerie series just doesn't do it for me, so I wasn't quite sure if I'd like this any better.
Anyway, this time I decided I was going to sit down and give the first chapter a try - and then I ended up in the second chapter. And the third.
I finished the last chapter, closed the book, and decided I am not going out in public without gloves ever again.
Welcome to Cassel's world. Once you're in, Black makes sure you don't know which way to exit. You just hold on and clamp your eyes shut, and hope that at least by the end, you'll know your first name. This is the type of book that makes me want to write, simply to hit the same amount of sheer awesome on my own personal scale. Just so you know how quickly it hooked me.
So, forget my dramatics for a moment. Let's talk about Cassel. He's the type of guy who sits back and watches, observes, cases the joint before he makes a move. He's got a dead best friend (who he has vague memories of murdering, but has no idea how or why), two big brothers that pretty much treat him as a disposable pawn in an endless chess game for power, and a evilly crazy...or is that crazy evil...mom in jail. Also, he's not a Worker - in a world where people can crush your mind, break your bones and make you fall madly in love with an angel-faced sinner...all with the touch of a bare finger.
And he's having dreams about a haunting white cat, a cat that bites out his tongue, scratches at him and speaks in a familiar voice. Telling him things about himself that he's quite sure isn't true.
The supporting cast is as much a focus as Cassel himself. This book gives us a mafia world that Gabrielle Zevin only scratched upon within the pages of All These Things I've Done (which I relatively enjoyed - for me, but not as much as this). Everyone acts within character, you get what I mean? There's not a moment where the reader feels thrown off and goes, "Wait a minute. That type of person wouldn't do that."
Let me tell you...up until I read this book, I wouldn't be sure that an author could throw together mafia families, hereditary talents and hints of old fairytales together and get away with it (at least without sounding completely nutso and pretentious), but Black does it perfectly. There is hardly a hitch in the thread of the story. The story starts with a bang, but it doesn't go out with a whimper.
This is complete mind-bending storytelling at its best.
I'm not sure how many times I can say that without sounding completely nutso and pretentious myself.
One of the main bones I had to pick (and this is rather minor) was White Cat's category. In the inside of the book, it's classified as "Science Fiction". Mr. Scott Westerfield blurbed the back cover. That was enough to make me anticipate genetic engineering, mad inventions and lab-tech hijinks of all sort. What I did get, though, was something more along the lines of a world with a bit of fantasy within its ordinary foundation - special abilities, prophetic dreams.
Not the same thing, people.
Unless there's something I missed. It does happen, you know.
The only other thing is the unhappy ending. For Cassel, at least. Well, maybe it's not an unhappy ending for him as much as for me, because I'm all true love perseveres and the evil witch falls off a tower and happy-happy credits rolling as we exit the movie theater. Holly Black seems to function more realistically - the hero doesn't always get everything he wants. It happens. I know it does. But if you're expecting for everything to magically fall into place and for you to close the book with a satisfying sigh and a hand clutched to your heart with sheer joy and faith in humanity...please don't.
On the bright side, there are two more books to carve through, so I'm not completely writing the poor boy off. Authors can be merciful.