Don’t get me wrong. I love Harry Potter, even though I came to it later than most. Good versus evil, witchcraft and wizardry, friendship and identity…J. K. Rowling delivers the whole package. And even though there will always be a special place in my heart for Hogwart’s, as a general rule, I tend to prefer my fiction (even my YA fiction) a little…darker. Which is no surprise, considering if I went to Hogwart’s, the sorting hat wouldn’t have to think twice about putting me in Slytherin.
It’s also not surprising that Half Bad, the first installment in a new young adult trilogy from Sally Green, was just to my taste. Like the Harry Potter series, Green’s modern-day England is populated by witches who mostly attempt to blend in with the “fains” (read: muggles, or us non-magic folk) despite their supernatural abilities. There’s also a group of “bad” or black witches who terrorize the “good” or white witches, sort of like the Death Eaters of Harry Potter. But Nathan, the teenage witch who narrates Half Bad, isn’t an orphan; his mother, a white witch from a prominent family, died when he was young, but his father is very much alive.
In fact, his father is Marcus, the most notorious black witch, who hunts down white witches and murders them in order to steal their power, collecting abilities like flying and invisibility. Nathan is what the Council, who governs witches and seeks to protect white witches from their black counterparts, calls a “half code.”Due to his mixed ancestry, their not really sure whether he’ll end up “good” or “bad” and they’re not taking any chances.
Now, if you’re think this is starting to sound like some alternate universe Harry Potter fanfiction you read (what, you don’t read fanfic?) where Harry is Voldemort’s son, I assure you, it’s not. While Half Bad has these superficial similarities, the reading experience is entirely different.
Nathan has a really strong voice, and this is what really makes the debut novel stand out. It’s intense and blunt, raw and bloody. Nathan has suffered at the hands of the “good” guys, first by isolation and surveillance, then by outright torture; the book opens with Nathan chained in a cage, beaten and starved, but his rather bleak life makes the bright spots, like his relationship with his brother Arran and childhood sweetheart, Ana, all the more vibrant.
At its core, the plot is one of a typical hero’s journey, but the story’s structure is anything but typical. Nathan seeks the truth about his nature and his origin, and must endure many difficult trials in order to discover it, but it isn’t told in a linear manner. With stream-of-consciousness second person narration and extensive flashbacks, the plot unfolds in a very scattered way. While this may be frustrating to some readers, I found it kept me on my toes and made me anxious to see how the pieces of the puzzle would fit together.
And though there are plenty of magical elements and interesting, complex world-building in Half Bad, it’s not all spells and potions. A mix of typical teenage difficulties, like trouble learning to read, a bossy and judgmental older sister, and bullying anchor Nathan’s struggle in the real world. Dramatic and fast-paced, this is truly a book I couldn’t put down. (Really, I read it in one sitting). It’s full of suspense, as readers will be as eager as Nathan to understand the reasons for his detention and ill treatment, the nature of his parent’s relationship, as well as who the “good” and “bad” guys really are.
There’s nothing subtle about Half Bad. It’s themes are quite blatant, and while I’d usually appreciate a more nuanced story, it somehow works. I’m anxious to see how the story plays out and what else readers will learn about Green’s magical world of black and white witches in the rest of the trilogy. This novel is full of moral ambiguity, and will prompt discussion about the nature of evil. Just as Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “there’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I think Half Bad is quite good.
– Molly Wetta, Collection Development