Dark themes, familiar emotions and a relatable protagonist make this magical tale an uncomfortably realistic read.
THE best fantasy novels are the ones that manage to show us our own world and its complex realities within their otherwordly settings. Sally Green’s debut work, the young adult fantasy novel Half Bad, does this so uncomfortably well that it leaves you both enraged and depressed by the injustices of human society.
The book, the first in the Half Life trilogy, is set in modern-day Britain, where witches live secretly alongside humans. While this may echo of a certain boy wizard with a lightning-shaped scar, that is where Half Bad’s similarity to the Harry Potter series ends.
Here, the witch community is divided into Black and White Witches – White Witches try to assimilate with humans and live under a council, while not much is known about Black Witches, except that they are cruel and bloodthirsty. Nathan, however, is a Half Code: half Black and half White. What’s more, Nathan’s father is Marcus, the most feared Black Witch in the world.
Despite being raised by his White grandmother, Nathan has spent all his life being monitored by the Council of White Witches, not to mention being discriminated against because of his parentage. And as his 17th birthday nears – which is when witches receive their magical abilities – the council begins imposing ever more tyrannical rules on him.
What’s more, Nathan is facing an equally distressing internal struggle: As more and more typically Black characteristics surface in him, he starts wondering whether he is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps after all – and, more worryingly, whether that would really be so bad.
Half Bad has been generating tremendous buzz in the publishing industry – the book’s rights were sold to 36 countries and film rights secured by 20th Century Fox, all before even being published – and it’s not at all difficult to see why.
Green creates a vivid magical world that is as dark as it is wondrous, and while many details are yet to be revealed, gives us just enough to leave us hungering for more. And for all that the book deals with heavy themes like prejudice, torture and government surveillance, she nicely balances these out with relatable, intensely human moments – despite all that Nathan is facing, he is also a teenaged boy learning to become a man, with all the attendant emotions and confusions.
Nathan is a fascinating character, with such a distinctive voice that you can’t help but be drawn into his sad existence. The author pulls no punches when it comes to the physical and mental abuse Nathan suffers at the hands of those around him, motivated simply by his mixed status.
The book opens with Nathan being shackled in a cage, and it doesn’t get much more comfortable from there. There are several particularly brutal episodes that will leave you cringing, and these are made even more acute by the matter-of-fact, almost dispassionate way in which Nathan narrates them.
The first-person narration is, in fact, one of the book’s biggest strengths, brilliantly depicting how Nathan has had to harden and distance himself in order to survive the pain inflicted upon him. Yet, in those times when he lets his guard down, he manages to endear himself to us with his authenticity – witch or not, we can all see some of ourselves in Nathan.
The book particularly excels at depicting Nathan’s relationship with his White family, especially his half-brother Arran; it’s rather rare to read about close relationships between boys, and Green handles it both touchingly and realistically.
Equally effective is the way Green blurs the lines between good and evil, by questioning if those terms can be so easily delineated. The Black witches are indeed cruel in their practices – none of them apparently live beyond middle age as they usually kill each other off – and yet, the White ones hardly seem any better, thanks to their paranoia, politicking and “the ends justify the means” approach.
Much of the book is internal, with several whole chapters being dedicated to Nathan’s thoughts and inner monologue while the events themselves may only take several hours. Yet, it is to Green’s credit that we remain glued to the book even here. This is thanks to her interesting approach to writing, where she intersperses actual narration with a more stream-of-consciousness style that is very effective in getting us inside Nathan’s head.
Perhaps the only downside to this (and this is a minor flaw) is that the story tends to first take its time to unfold before suddenly hurtling towards its climax, with a whole bunch of new characters being introduced in the last third of the book. I’m assuming we will get better acquainted with them in the following books, but I do wish characters like Gabriel (a teenage Black witch Nathan meets while on the run) were given more space.
With such a promising start to the trilogy, however, I will most certainly be picking up the next book, so I eagerly look forward to reading more of Nathan’s journey in his dark, magical world filled with fascinating characters.