Title: Half Bad
Author: Sally Green
No. of Pages: 416
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Origins: Viking Children’s Books
Release Date: 4 March 2014
Bottom Line: Exciting and new
“In modern-day England, witches live alongside humans: White witches, who are good; Black witches, who are evil; and sixteen-year-old Nathan, who is both. Nathan’s father is the world’s most powerful and cruel Black witch, and his mother is dead. He is hunted from all sides. Trapped in a cage, beaten and handcuffed, Nathan must escape before his seventeenth birthday, at which point he will receive three gifts from his father and come into his own as a witch—or else he will die. But how can Nathan find his father when his every action is tracked, when there is no one safe to trust—not even family, not even the girl he loves?
In the tradition of Patrick Ness and Markus Zusak, Half Bad is a gripping tale of alienation and the indomitable will to survive, a story that will grab hold of you and not let go until the very last page.”
Thoughts: It is always with trepidation that one approaches a new novel about which there has been much buzz and excitement, as the question remains whether the story will live up to the hype. Then there is the added pressure of the subject matter. There have been many novels written about witches living among humans, blending in while maintaining their own societies and political structures. Some have been more successful than others. Half Bad has the dubious pleasure of not only generating a lot of excitement months in advance of its release, it is also about a topic many readers are going to compare to the Harry Potter series. On the surface, the similarities are great and deserve such comparisons. Both boys grow up fairly ignorant of their past and the magical community at large. Both live with extended family rather than their parents. There are bad witches and good witches and a fight between the two divides the community.
However, one does a disservice to Ms. Green’s series by comparing it to J. K. Rowling’s. For, the exciting thing about Half Bad is that Nathan’s fate is anything but certain. Unlike Harry, who is the knight in shining armor no matter what his age, it is not clear at all on which side of the battle Nathan will finish. Not only does his parentage impact his choices and his eventual fate, so do all of the interactions he has with fellow witches. Some of those interactions are plainly disturbing and create plenty of reasons for why Nathan would want to side with his father. Along the same lines,the definitions of good versus bad remain unclear throughout the novel. A reader’s opinion changes with each scene, as Nathan learns a new piece of information about his family or about the witch community at large. There is something refreshing about the lack of definitive answers, unclear paths, and and hints at future reveals that diminishes the impact of any similarities and allows readers to focus on Nathan and Half Bad as a unique and exciting story in its own right.
Half Bad is as much a discussion of will and determination as it is a commentary on the long-standing nature versus nurture development debate. Nathan is the ideal subject for this debate, having one parent from each side of the witch populace. Nurturing White witches raise him but fellow White witches, that are not his family, torment him for his Black parentage. It is not until the Counsel starts truly limiting his freedoms wherein he starts exhibiting more of his darker side, not because he wants to do so but because he feels trapped into doing so. It is a fascinating dichotomy that serves to heighten the tension and build genuine sympathy for Nathan and his plight.
Half Bad is also an eerie reminder of pre-war Germany and its escalating persecution of the Jews. The Counsel and its interminable notices limit the actions of those with mixed parentage, especially those with Black witch ancestry, just as the Germans created more and more restrictions for Jews as their power increased. It is no wonder that readers, and Nathan, begin to question the “goodness” of the White witches given the growing number of notices that curtail every aspect of Nathan’s life and the actions they take to “protect” other White witches from Nathan’s potential evil side.
Nathan’s story unfolds quickly and succinctly. Told solely through his eyes, readers only learn as much as Nathan knows or learns himself. It is a methodology that works very well given the large swaths of gray area that occur around the Black and White witch world. It also works well because of Nathan’s ignorance about his past and the magical world in which he lives, as it gives Ms. Green a perfect opportunity to explain the unfamiliar elements of Nathan’s world without disrupting the narrative. There are plenty of remaining unexplained elements to help flesh out future stories in the series, but she still captures a reader’s imagination with the tidbits shared during this opening novel. Nathan himself is a genuinely sympathetic character, forced into the most horrible of situations just because of who his father is rather than any cause created by him. He raises a reader’s natural curiosity through his innate goodness and the tribulations he faces at the hands of the Counsel.
Every question answered raises more questions, and a reader has the distinct impression that there are more bombshells out there waiting for their release. The blurring of definitions between good and bad is too obvious not to be a clue to future plot twists, although at the end of Half Bad, readers have nothing but hypotheses to back up this assumption. However, one has the feeling that Nathan’s father is not necessarily the evil incarnate the Counsel makes him out to be, or else he is but he has good cause for being so. Either way, these intriguing possibilities leave readers breathless with anticipation for further stories in the Half Life series.