This is the second book in a trilogy, and as such not the best place to start. This review will contain some spoilers for book one, because it's impossible to write about this book without talking about things that were revealed in the first one. So if you are new to these Holly Black books, go find White Cat - that's where to begin the trilogy.
Cassel Sharpe lives in a world where a select percentage of the population have certain gifts. People who, if they touch your skin with theirs, can alter your luck or prospects, manipulate or delete your memories, alter or change your emotions, break your bones or heal your illnesses. Some can even kill. In the United States, there is heavy legislation against what is known as such curse working. Everyone has to wear gloves, because you never know who might be a curse worker, manipulating you in some way. Because curse working is mainly seen as a bad thing (despite the fact that the majority of workers mainly use their powers to bring good luck or can heal the sick and injured), those who discover they are gifted with such powers keep it very secret, or go on to join organised crime, because all the major crime bosses are curse workers.
On the flip side of having a cool superpower, there is the blowback. Every time a worker uses his or her abilities, they get a reaction. Physical workers who use their powers to hurt or heal get sick themselves, emotion workers get very emotionally unstable, death workers actually lose body parts and memory workers lose their own memories.
Cassel believed he was the only one in his family of grifters and curse workers not gifted. His mother can completely change people's emotions, his older brother Phillip could break people's bones, his middle brother Barron can completely rewrite or delete people's memories and his grandfather is a death worker. Cassel himself is one of the rarest of workers, he can transform items or people, alter their appearances or even change them into animals or inanimate objects. His mother and brothers wanted to keep him unaware of his gifts until he got older, so his brother Barron started changing his memories, making him think he was just a regular human. Over the course of the first book, Cassel discovers that his brothers kept rewriting his memories, using his transformation abilities for their own ends.
After Phillip and Barrons tried to move up in the world by trying to assassinate Zacharov, the local curse worker crime boss, Cassel made a deal that saved their lives, but led to the death of Zacharov's nephew Anton. Because of all the blowback from his memory cursing, Barron's memory is a bit like Swiss cheese, and he has to surround himself with photographs, notebooks, post-it notes and note cards to remind himself of who he is and what his memories are. Cassel has used his forgery skills to make Barron believe they don't hate each other, and go for pizza every fortnight. Their mother is out of jail, and to "thank" Cassel, manipulated Lila, Zacharov's only daughter, into being madly in love with him. Now the girl Cassel has always loved and feels horrible about betraying (I don't want to reveal how, as it's very spoilery) is attending his school, watching him like a love-sick puppy and he can't touch her, as she's effectively given a really long-lasting roofie.
To add to Cassel's difficulties, he is approached by Federal agents who tell him his brother Phillip has been murdered. The security footage show a hooded woman entering his building, wearing long red gloves. They believe Phillip's death may be the last in a string of disappearances connected to the Zacharov crime family, and want Cassel's help in solving the crimes. Looking at the pictures of the missing men, Cassel is worried he knows exactly what happened to them. Cassel is pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place. He doesn't really want to actively work for Zacharov, but can't exactly turn around and work for the government either, as that would be seen as a betrayal of everything he comes from, and could lead to the death of Barron, his mother and likely Cassel himself.
Luckily, over the course of the first book, Cassel discovered he has friends he can really confide in and trust. His roommate Sam, who is a special effects wizard and Sam's girlfriend Daneca, who is very passionate about protecting worker rights, helped him prevent his brothers' misguided assassination attempt of Zacharov. They are now his most important allies. Cassel's grandfather is also firmly on his side, with no illusions about his various family members, but as he's been part of the Zacharov crime family and lost four fingers because of death curses he's performed in the line of duty, so Cassel doesn't feel he can tell him the full truth. He needs to use all the tricks he's learned as a grifter to hold both sides off until he figures out how he can work out what is best for himself.
I first read White Cat, the first book in the series about five years ago, and it didn't really make much of an impact on me. Then one of my friends read the whole series and rated them so highly, saying he actually wanted to see a paranormal TV series based on them, and I figured I really should give them another try. When re-reading the first book, I liked it better this time and many of the problems I had with Cassel as a protagonist come from the fact that he's such a introverted loner. Once he starts opening up and making friends, he becomes a lot more relatable and I cared more about what happened to him. Which is good, because there is a more engaging plot in the first book than in this one. I was still interested in seeing where the story was going and how Cassel was going to play both sides against each other. My friend is right, this would make a very cool TV show.