Review — The Curse Workers Trilogy by Holly Black

Synopsis

White Cat — Cassel Sharpe uncovers a plot planned by his brothers that involve him, the head of a mob family, and Lila, the girl he killed three years ago.

Red Glove — Cassel Sharpe returns to Wallingford as a normal student . . . until the Feds show up with some disturbing news involving his brother Philip.

Black Heart — Cassel Sharpe, having caught the interest of both the mob and the government, must choose which side he wants to spend his life working for.

Thoughts

There are several things I love about this series, and I will discuss each of them in full here. Starting with Cassel.

Cassel Sharpe
This kid. This kid. I love this kid. As his grandfather said, “Clever as the devil and twice as pretty.” He’s got a crooked smile for that crooked soul of his– he should know, he practices in the mirror.

His simplistic narration drives the story forward in a way the reader won’t notice. The mood of the scene is dependent on his word choice, and it is so carefully crafted that the reader feels his stress, their stomach curls with Cassel’s, their body temperature rises when he’s making out with his love interest. I love how he’s conscious of his dumb decisions and he makes them anyway. But most of all, I love how he is neither strictly good or strictly bad.

In the third book, Cassel struggles with this good vs. bad duality as seen with the book’s Big Choice. Should Cassel turn on his family, who had been involved with the mob for generations, to go straight and work for the Feds? Or should he work for the mob where he would be treated like royalty? If you pay attention, you can see him struggle with the same ideals throughout the books.

Holly Black gets kudos for making Cassel non-white. This isn’t an explicit detail in Cassel’s description, but he describes his skin color as fairly dark without saying where his family is originally from. In fact, his family’s origins are up in the air–his great-grandfather who had immigrated to the United States told a lot of stories.

World Building
There are two things I love about this: the actual world and it’s portrayal.

I didn’t make it clear in my synopses, but the Curse Workers Trilogy is an urban fantasy mob story. The fantasy aspect comes from workers, select individuals with power in one of seven areas: dream, emotion, physical, memory, luck, death, and transformation. With a single touch, a memory worker can make you forget the exact sum you owe them; a dream worker can give you regular nightmares, an emotion worker can make you fall in love with anyone. Not all of these are fatal, but they can be. A dream worker can make you sleepwalk off the edge of a building, for instance. Working is a dangerous pastime in this world, which is why workers are typically involved with the mob. In the story, gloves are the protection against working–everyone is required to wear them and people flip out you walk around in public with bare hands.

Cassel does a fantastic job immersing the reader into this world. He talks about his family doesn’t wear gloves in their homes because “families should be able to trust each other.” When he’s sitting in an interrogation room with a couple federal agents, he feels vulnerable despite being gloveless. The reader is subtly reminded about gloves throughout the story when Cassel describes the color of his friend’s gloves or draws attention to amulets that protect against working.

There is also a lot of background noise that portrays the world and gives it a more real edge. The biggest instance is the political drama happening behind-the-scenes regarding a certain proposition in New Jersey. We’re given most of this information through Daneca, Cassel’s friend who comes from a privileged family but fights for the rights of those who live otherwise.

Characterization
Awesome characterization isn’t limited to Cassel. We can all name someone in our lives similar to Daneca mentioned earlier. The same goes for Sam, Cassel’s roommate who loves slasher films and special effects. We don’t see much of Philip after the first book, but we do see a lot of Barron and how he changes from following orders in Book 1 to accepting the life his little brother conned him into in Book 3. Nothing is directly stated, and I love that about this series.

Final Thoughts

The Curse Workers Trilogy is fantastic. Seriously, go read it. You won’t be disappointed.

MEDIUM: Books
SHELF: Library

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Review – The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress

Released Dec. 6, 2012 by Dial

SYNOPSIS

Cora Bell is the assistant of Lord White of the House of Parliament who likes to secretly invent things in his spare time.

Nellie Harrison is the assistant of The Great Raheem, a popular magician in London’s high and low societies.

Michiko is the assistant of Callum, a self-defense instructor who works in London’s high society.

On one fateful night after a gala, all three girls meet over a murder. They band together to not just solve the murder that brought them together, but to save London.

MY THOUGHTS

I read a post by Adrienne Kress on John Scalzi’s The Big Idea segment featuring this book, and what Ms. Kress had to say intrigued me. Girls who can kick butt without giving up their femininity? I’m on board. When I finally read the book, the tropes felt very familiar. The best I can phrase this is by using the Powerpuff Girls. Cora is Blossom, the leader and smart one who holds the trio together. Nellie is Bubbles, prone to smiling and much more than a pretty face. Michiko is Buttercup, direct and more likely to use a fist to solve things.

Now take these tropes and put them into a London steampunk setting, add a little 90’s Girl Power flair, and you have this book. It is a fantastically fun book to read. The prose and dialogue are very modern, which I don’t mind. I feel writing this book in Victorian-era jargon would have not only been lost on today’s teenaged audience but felt like the book was hitting you in the head with feminism.

Although the book is littered with 90’s tropes, I still found The Friday Society very entertaining. There’s some witty dialogue, some romance on the side (though it wasn’t overpowering, thank goodness), and the hint that there could be more adventures in the future. In a way, it’s almost a blast to the past, paying homage to the wave of feminism where a woman can kick your butt then fix her lipstick and replace the stiletto heel she lodged in your chest. The book does not dismiss femininity in order to have kick-ass female characters, and I really appreciate that.

In the end, I only managed to predict one plot twist (out of two). That makes me happy.

This is a very fun read; I wouldn’t recommend it if you are looking for something heavy or in-depth. The Friday Society is a book to read in the small pieces of time you get throughout your life–waiting for the bus, on break at work, while you eat a meal, waiting for your henchmen to laugh at your jokes, etc.

MEDIUM: Book
BOOKSHELF: Library

Review – Fullmetal Alchemist

When I first heard of Fullmetal Alchemist (FMA) in high school, I was kind of skeptical. A year later, it was one of the best things on Adult Swim. While I can’t remember what initially got me interested, I can talk about the FMA anime series. Although this is just one of many forms a consumer can take in the FMA universe, this post will be limited to the series released in 2003. (In addition to the manga, a second anime series titled Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was released in 2009.)

Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead

Synopsis

Edward (right) and Alphonse (armor) Elric

FMA is based on the manga of the same name by Hiromu Arakawa. The first anime adaption, produced by Bones, aired October 2003 until October 2004 and totals 51 episodes.

Set in a world modeled after Industrial Revolution-era Europe where alchemy is the major science, brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric break the ultimate law and use alchemy to resurrect their dead mother. Their attempt fails, and as a result Alphonse loses his body, becoming a soul trapped in a suit of armor. Edward, meanwhile, loses his left leg and right arm, replacing them with automail, or mechanical prosthetic limbs. Acknowledging their mistake, the boys set out to find a way to restore their original bodies–focusing their efforts on finding the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, which can break the fundamental laws of alchemy.

Under the advice and guidance of Roy Mustang, Edward passes the certification exam to become the youngest State Alchemist in Amestris, earning the title of Fullmetal due to his automail limbs. With Ed as a State Alchemist, the Elric Brothers have access to the best resources their country can offer to help their search. However, State Alchemist certification comes with a price as Edward is now required to follow military orders, even when he doesn’t agree with them. Colonel Roy Mustang, Ed’s superior, often protects the brothers from the interest of high-ranking military officials and sends Ed on missions that might prove useful to his search.

The Elrics eventually realize something is happening in the higher ranks of the military, and it involves the Philosopher’s Stone and the mysterious Ishbalan War of Extermination that tore up the east several years ago.

Reaction

That’s Maes Hughes in the corner. This image embodies his character.

I can’t help but compare this series with the second anime. Although this first anime remains true to the source material until about halfway, it takes the time to develop several relationships before their Impactful Moments, most notably Nina Tucker and Maes Hughes. Nina is the daughter of an alchemist the Elrics study under for several episodes, and I appreciate seeing more of her in the original series. She calls the Elrics “big brother” and waits outside the government building when they take their certification exam. This last scene, I feel, spoke wonders to their relationship. Additionally, we see a lot more of Maes Hughes, and we could all use more Maes Hughes in our lives.

The relationship between Ed and Roy I find a bit more realistic in this series. Roy is more omnipotent than he appears in the other series, and he often blackmails Ed whenever Ed shows reluctance in accepting a mission. Ed is open about his dislike of Roy, but his attitude also shows that he accepts Roy as the best superior to have, despite his smugness. The power play between them is really entertaining.

There are several aspects of the world development that I like. For instance, alchemy seems more of a science. We see people studying it and not being good at it and struggling to understand concepts or theories. It also helps to see more objects associated with science and chemistry, such as beakers and bunsen burnders. Additionally, the absence of Father gives this series a more secular feel. Instead of the Ishbalan War being the whim of a wannabe-deity, the war was the result of a cultural conflict between the people of Ishbal and the people of Amestris. It makes that whole aspect of the story much more terrifying.

I also think the homunculi are handled better. They all have goals that they’re working towards, which makes them more believable as characters. How a homunculus is created is more interesting with them being the byproduct of failed human transmutation. So things get interesting toward the end when the Elrics encounter their mother’s likeness and are, in a sense, forced to face their mistake all over again.

From Left: Alphonse and Edward Elric, Roy Mustang, Riza Hawkeye

Despite these good qualities, I do have a few critiques, most notably in the second half. While I like how some things are handled, I do feel the second half gets a little confusing and fails to develop a few points introduced in the first half. For instance, Ed and Al’s father is referenced in the first half as being a great alchemist who studied with several other alchemists and helped to further their research. This suggests he was a big name in the alchemy field and contributed a fair amount to research. I was disappointed when we finally met him. His contribution to the story itself was quite minimal, and I was disappointed about that.

My biggest issue is probably the introduction of parallel worlds. The last ten episodes introduce the idea that our world (set in WWII) exists as a parallel with the world in the story. If you so choose, you can cross between the worlds through human transmutation. Personally, I think that if you’re going to introduce parallel worlds into your story, you need to plant the seed in the audience’s mind sooner and more often than what this series did. Images of atom bombs in the second episode is not enough of a seed for me. The audience should be able to anticipate something larger is going on.

Finally, I take issue with the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone. During the first half, the series suggests that it takes a LOT of materials and advanced alchemy to create the Stone, which is created in steps and requires a lot of research to get to the final points. When a stone is finally created, most of these materials are missing. Additionally, the power of the Stone decreases as the series progresses. This coincides with the series debunking the theory of Equivalent Exchange, which I feel shatters all the effort put into world building.

Final Thoughts

Would I recommend Fullmetal Alchemist to others? Yes, absolutely. Japanese-style storytelling coupled with an alternate Industrial Revolution-era setting make for an engaging experience. The anime balances the darkness of the story’s themes with comedic moments and well-done action sequences. Whether you choose to watch with English subtitles or with English dubbing, you’re in for a real treat.

Bookshelf – Netflix Instant