I was warned when I picked up Sally Green’s Half Bad that it was an extremely polarising book and I’d either adore it or loathe it. In the same breath, I was told that it was a dark and twisted version of Harry Potter, which just made me want to read it even more. Having read my share of polarising, dark books that seem to attract endless debate among reviewers in my day, I wanted to leap into the apparent furore surrounding Half Bad, as many readers had very unpleasant things to say about its narrative style, choice of second person for part of the story, and its comparison to Harry Potter. Other reviewers absolutely loved it, considering it original, brilliant, and innovative.
Nathan is a whet, a young witch who hasn’t come of age yet. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a world where witches are divided into White and Black, and while his now-deceased mother was a White witch, his father was one of the ‘Blackest of them all.’ As he ages, everyone is eager to see how he turns out, including the mysterious and brutal Council, which hands down a series of edicts regarding the treatment of those like himself who come from mixed ancestry. As he gets closer and closer to his 17th birthday when he will inherit the Gift that determines the course of his future, the stakes go up…and the odds on his survival get a whole lot longer.
Where would my opinion fall? Half Bad was challenging right out of the gate, as that’s where the second person segment lies, and I, like many readers, am not terribly comfortable with second person narrative. I don’t like being put into the mind and body of the character that way, but I forced myself through — not least because the narrative was compelling, and because Green was capturing the immediacy and real world of the torture Nathan was enduring. From there, the narrative brought us back in time to his childhood and the series of events that led to his imprisonment in a cage, and then dumped us into the present day, and what comes next.
This nonsequential storytelling worked seamlessly within the structure of the text, and it went along with some brilliantly crafted and constructed worldbuilding. As a writer who is not so strong when it comes to worldbuilding, I tend to pay particularly close attention to it in the works of others, because I want to know what works and what doesn’t, and I want to pay attention to how I respond as a reader in order to crack the complex code of how to create a world that’s strong and believable for readers, with the level of lush, engaging detail that keeps people immersed in the world. Green accomplished it with a world that unfolded naturally around the characters, though it was a vicious, cruel, and evil world in many ways.
Some critics have panned the book for not showing very much actual magic, arguing that YA fantasy should perforce feature magic, but this in a way was one of its strong points for me. The magic was quietly woven in throughout the world, appearing almost constantly, just not in the form of spellwork that many people are accustomed to seeing. In a world where people carry Gifts of magic inside themselves, their magic is used in different ways, and sometimes those ways are more subtle than direct and obvious.
On the surface, Nathan’s story might seem very cliched and old news; stepchild reluctantly raised by family of White witches who think of him with varying degrees of affection, from a devoted older brother to a spiteful, nasty older sister, child of isolation who’s confronted at every turn by hate and fear, but Green manages to take him to interesting places, and to bring a rich depth to his character. One thing she does extremely well is highlight the fact that the White/Black divide is in many ways quite arbitrary and meaningless, and that being White doesn’t mean you are a good person who behaves with responsibility and sympathy for the other people in your world — Half Bad is a place in which White witches can seem just as evil if not more so than their Black counterparts.
This sets up an interesting decision fork for Nathan, pressured by his family to take on his White heritage but confronted with the reality of a world in which being a ‘good’ witch isn’t all that much to be proud of. At the same time, though, he sees the death, destruction, and disaster that reign among the community of Black witches, and he sees little to admire there either. In a sense, he is a unique oddity in more ways than one, and it is this that Green will be exploring in future books in this series as we see Nathan grow and mature now that he’s had his Giving ceremony (though we still don’t know what his Gift is).
I can understand why this book is polarising; it can be rough and abrasive at times, and the narrative is much more psychologically driven than plot driven. Readers who prefer fast-paced novels with clearly defined goals and more marked delineations between good and evil might not find as much to enjoy in this text, which refuses to be pinned down, twisting and turning constantly to avoid categorisation and control from readers. For me, though, this joins books like The Kingdom of Little Wounds, which depict a dark, deeply twisted world that struggles to make sense of itself and constantly confronts readers with extreme ugliness…and rare moments of light.