“Choices may be unbelievably hard but they’re never impossible. To say you have no choice is to release yourself from responsibility and that’s not how a person with integrity acts.”
Patrick Ness, ‘Monsters of Men’
Half Bad introduces us to a brilliant development in YA writing – witches. Vampires have long been on the way out, and come to fill their shoes is this excellent debut novel from Sally Green.
We are introduced very quickly to the novel’s world: a version of the UK where White Witches and Black Witches live in enmity. (Think Capulet and Montague but with everyone belonging to one house). Black Witches are seen as vicious and not to be trusted, and the White Witches have plenty of methods available to stop them from doing anything deemed ‘dangerous to White Witches’. There is no fifty-fifty split between Black and White; the Whites clearly have supremacy, and run the Council that is in charge of all witch-related things.
It is in this world that we are introduced to Nathan, half-Black half-White Witch, and son of one of the most powerful Black Witches ever. He’s being brought up by the White side of his family after his mum died, and for the first big chunk of the book we see his troubles at school. This was a very cleverly worked approach by Green – it allows the reader to jump into this unfamiliar world but with sense that will be all-too-familiar to teenagers negotiating the perils of senior school. Bullying obviously crops up, and gives a fantastic way in to the sentiments on both sides of witch lines as to how the other is perceived. There is a one bullying scene that is particularly harrowing, and excellently pulled off. It reminded me distinctly of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, where you see the protagonist being bullied and you feel like an awful observer, powerless to help your character escape the horrors of what is happening to them.
But this is all after the opening, which is very distinctive. It’s written, initially, in second person which is notoriously hard to pull off well. The only YA book I’ve read in second person is Stolen, by Lucy Christopher, and that does pull it off exquisitely. I wasn’t convinced by the second person viewpoint initially, but it is only done in bursts, and for the rest of the story we have Nathan’s first person narrative guiding us through. Bar the one or two exceptions, of course. This second person narrative does wrap into the main story relatively quickly, and the second person viewpoint does do a great job of building the sense of isolation and atmosphere for the setting and context of these sections.
The book settles out about two-thirds of the way through into familiar ‘here comes a series’ territory, but it doesn’t drop the pace or slack. Longer is spent in certain places or on certain things, but after finishing the story I believe that it is paced correctly for something that will presumably become a trilogy – because who DOESN’T publish a trilogy these days? But at the moment it feels like one fluid, well-paced story. Hopefully the sequels will carry on this way, like the Grisha Trilogy did, in terms of plot and pace.
You also get a strong feel for the characters. Well-plotted books can have poor characters and vice versa, but here it does feel a fairly even balance – and Nathan is a very strong protagonist, I think. By choosing someone half-White half-Black – the latter side of which is very powerful – it becomes far more about the choices he makes rather than any genetic tendencies. Of course, the assumption that good V evil is genetic in the Half Bad world is rather entrenched in their culture, and seeing this from Nathan’s perspective is really interesting as he wrestles with choice versus genetics as to his behaviour. It’s the classic nature versus nurture debate, and it plays out very well in the first book.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and having borrowed it from the library I am now eager to go out and get my own copy. I feel it’s one I’ll certainly read again, and I await the next book in spring 2015 with great excitement! If purchasing/borrowing this for a friend, I would suggest a 13+ age range.
HALF BAD: 8.5/10
If you like this book, you may enjoy:
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Stolen by Lucy Christopher
Slated (first of a series) by Teri Terry
The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness
The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo
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