Cassel Sharpe is a confused boy of 17. No wonder. He has a deadly secret. He believes he murdered his first girlfriend when he was 14. In the dystopian world he inhabits, many people fall into six categories of worker. Workers can inflict suffering on their victims with a mere touch. Cassel’s family are all workers. He is not, and they abuse and exploit him for being different.
Cassel has been sent to a boarding school which he loves and where he feels safe. But when he dreams he sees a white cat and sleep-walks on to the roof of the dormitory building the head sends him home for safety. Even at home, however, Cassel is haunted by the white cat. Is it really a cat or something more sinister?
Black’s novel is intended for a young readership yet it reads more like a gangster yarn for grown ups, the kind of book that would have been adapted for a film starring Humphrey Bogart. Indeed some of the scenes in which workers are using their deadly skills suggest potential for the screen. At heart this is a teenage Mafia tale. At some points while the details of Cassel’s confusion are explored, the narrative pace flags a little and characters lack depth and conviction. Cassel’s mother is supposed to be a manipulator of emotions but she does not touch the reader’s feelings at any depth.
Chris Westwood’s Ministry of Pandemonium also describes a dystopian world but paradoxically he makes that world convincing by concentrating the reader’s attention not on the features of that world but on the emotions of its inhabitants. The reader comes to care about Westwood’s characters in a way that eludes Black’s.