Book review: Half Lost, Sally Green

I picked up Half Bad on the recommendation of a bookseller — a reminder of how important booksellers are in the publishing ecology — and I’ve been following the series ever since as it unfolds. Now, Half Lost brings it to an end, and it’s a really stark, fantastic end that fits in well with this challenging trilogy. If you haven’t read it, you should really consider it, because, as my bookseller friend put it, it’s like Harry Potter for grownups. (But it’s still YA.)

This is a story about an exceptionally smart young person born into magic, but into a twisted world, where white and black witches battle each other for social control, demonising each other along the way. He’s a ‘half code,’ someone of mixed blood, and he’s not an entirely good person, which is a refreshing change, because I’m really getting tired of fantasy where the heroes are all squeaky clean. Few people are shot through with goodness and it’s appropriate — perhaps even necessary — to acknowledge that. It makes for much more complex, interesting reading.

Nathan is the son of Marcus, the worst black witch that ever there was, and it makes the wizarding government suspicious of him, so they decide to lock him away, figuring he’s enough of a potential weapon to keep alive to use against his father, but also enough of a potential weapon to want to keep under their thumbs so he doesn’t get any ideas. Oddly enough, being locked up has a tendency to radicalise a person, and it’s probably not surprising that he emerges from his childhood incarceration furious, bent on revenge, but also in many ways unformed. He’s never allowed to mature because he’s never allowed to be himself, and he’s never forced to consider the world around him, because it’s always been regimented for him. So he’s an incredibly dangerous person who kills when it suits him and is bent on revenge, but without any real moral checks. Like a lethal baby.

And that’s the theme that runs through the series, coming to a head in a really brilliant way in Half Lost, as Nathan is finally forced to confront the fact that other people exist, that morals are a thing, that maybe he should consider acting like a human being instead of an animal. There’s a really fantastic scene with him and a witch named Ledger, where Ledger stresses a dislike for killing, and Nathan doggedly insists that morals are nice but sometimes you have to kill to get things done, and Ledger questions that, creating an interesting tension as Nathan is forced to seriously evaluate that question for the first time. Does he kill because it’s necessary, or because he wants to? If he thinks it’s necessary, is it, really?

Maybe it’s my liking for antiheroes speaking here, but I will freely admit that I like Nathan a lot more than Harry Potter. He’s dark, he’s mean, he’s vicious, and he’s bad, but from that, there’s so much room to grow as he comes into himself and begins to reevaluate the world. This is the book where he starts to not only form human relationships, but also to actually care about other people, and it’s fascinating to watch that transformation unfold as the book reaches the peak of the drama and catastrophe strikes, putting Nathan face to face with all of the things that have changed about him.

One of my biggest complaints about nicey-nice fantasy heroes is that they don’t really seem to have anywhere to go. Sometimes they throw petty little tantrums or get fussy, but they never really explore the dark parts of their personalities because they’re too busy staying neat and clean. That means that we don’t really see people mature, as they get held in a state of artificial infantalism, trapped in a world where they’re supposed to be all nice and shiny. And the fact is that being human isn’t nice and shiny. We all have dark sides to varying degrees, and we all struggle with them as we grow up and as adults. They’re part of who we are and they shape how we mature. When a character utterly lacks darkness, there’s no dimensionality. By the same token, when a character is simplistically bad, there’s nowhere to go either.

Green’s literally half bad character, on the other hand, was in a position to grow, shift, change, expand over the course of the series, and it showed. Nathan transforms from an innocent child with a dark family history to an angry youth furious at being treated like garbage to an adult who has seen dark things, and is forced to make difficult choices about his life. It’s a journey I identify with much more as a reader because it shows me so much more of who he is, and it makes the end of the book that much more meaningful.

I want to see more YA like this (to be fair, Harry Potter is technically middle grade, though often shelved elsewhere, but middle grade deserves some darkness too). This was a story with a character who snuck up on me in all these terrible wonderful beautiful intense ways, and the circuitous, complicated, dark story was so worth the payoff at the bitter end.

Image: Lai da Palpuogna Switzerland, Transformer18, Flickr