White Cat, by Holly Black (Simon and Schuster, 2010), is pretty close to my ideal of what a YA fantasy thriller should be. Mystery! Mayhem! Cool and unusual magic! Interesting characters!* It is the first book I can ever remember taking upstairs with me, and finishing in bed next to my little one "I guess Mama's not going to read to me tonight...." he murmured plaintively. But I only had five more pages, and I had to find out what happened....(and then I read to him).
(I know I overuse parentheses in this post (sorry!) but sadly I don't have time to de-parenthesize).
Cassel is not quite like the other kids at his prep school. For one thing, his family are curse workers--they possess magical (and very illegal) skills. His mother's in jail for emotional manipulation on a very high level (she can twist the feelings of anyone she touches, including rich men...). His grandfather is able to kill with a touch (a useful skill for a hit man). His older brother's gotten involved with a high level curse worker family--the mafia of the magical. Seventeen-year old Cassel himself has accepted that he has no curse working abilities himself, but he does have his own abilities as a con man, and runs a rather lucrative gambling ring at his school.
But when he wakes up trapped on the roof of his dorm, with no idea how he got there (or how to get off), Cassel's life begins a spiral out of control into a tangle of magic, crime, and twisted (very very twisted) family secrets. Cassel comes up against murder, transformation, the manipulation of memory, and more...and the reader (me at least) is left on the seat of her chair, reading hungrily to find out the answers to the mysteries that have exploded into his life.
Told from Cassel's point of view, the reader gets to unravel the plot threads along with him, making for satisfying reading (except for a bit at the end, where the author withholds information from the reader--I can see why she did it, but I felt a bit miffed, and began to wonder if I should Question what I had been told previously). Like Cassel, we aren't sure who we can trust, who is using whom, and why. Black makes her world of curse workers satisfyingly real, without resorting to information dumps. She's assembled a (mostly) stellar cast of supporting players, and she manages to make us care about (many) of her characters, while keeping all but one (not Cassel) morally ambiguous. (Although I was rooting for Cassel throughout).
This is the first YA book of Black's I've finished--I found Tithe much too gritty for my taste. This was also gritty, but not as much--there's considerable violence here too, and some of it is disturbing, but it doesn't take up too much page time, and I was able to accept it as necessary for the truly exciting story. There's a romantic sub-plot line, but it's not particularly gritty, or expansive.
(In short, I liked the book lots).
*It also has several scenes that involve cleaning out an old house full of junk. For some reason I am strangely attracted to such books.