Book Review: Half Bad by Sally Green

When this book was pitched as a “dark” Harry Potter and was generating so much buzz, I was skeptical. But with its breakneck pacing and unique world-building, it totally won me over.
half badHalf Bad by Sally Green

Published: March 4 2014 by Viking Juvenile/Penguin

Source: ARC from publisher

Synopsis: In modern-day England, witches live alongside humans: White witches, who are good; Black witches, who are evil; and fifteen-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 sixteenth 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?

My thoughts: I went into this with fairy high expectations. It had a lot of pre-publication buzz.

I’m happy to say I found this an engrossing read. It held my interest and certain aspects of the writing impressed me. It’s sure to find a lot of teen fans, but it is also dark and layered enough to have crossover adult appeal.

I do think that the synopsis that is being used is a great disservice to the book, and doesn’t really capture either the plot or the mood of the story. This is a book I’m anxious to discuss, so the review might be a tad spoilery.

WRITING

The books begins with second person narration . As in Nathan, the main character, is addressing himself as “you.” While this is almost always a bad idea, Green uses it to great effect.

See, in the beginning of the story, Nathan is in quite a terrible position—spending most of his nights locked in a cage, and his days either chained or forced to run or work. He desperately wants to escape. The second person perspective is distancing enough to allow the reader to contemplate the horrific conditions Nathan is living under without immediately wanting to put the book down, but still not so far away that the reader can’t feel Nathan’s pain. It’s an effective device when used judiciously. This approach gave Nathan such an engrossing voice, I was immediately hooked.

THE STORY

Really, I wanted to find out how he got into that cage and that set of chains. And soon the story shifts into first person present tense, and Nathan tells the story from his childhood. Again, this sort of structure isn’t always ideal. Extended flashbacks can feel overly explain-y and detract from the forward trajectory of the story, but in this case, it works. The reader learns that Nathan’s mother was a white witch, his father, a black witch—in fact, a most notorious and evil black witch. Raised by his grandmother, Nathan is subjected to regular evaluation and subject to increasingly strict control by a council of white witches who are tasked with protecting the community of white witches from the evil, black witches. If he’s labeled black, there’s little question in his mind, or anyone else’s, what the council will decide to do.

But not even Nathan knows the whole story of his parent’s relationship, and the reader won’t learn it in this first installment of a planned trilogy, either. There is certainly a lot of this world still left to explore.

The plot is one of a typical hero’s journey. In many ways, this story has been told before. Nathan seeks the truth about his nature and his origin, and must endure many difficult trials in order to discover it. The mix of real world struggles, like difficulty learning to read or dealing with a bossy and judgmental older sister, and bullying anchor Nathan’s struggle in the real world.

Overall, I found the story entertaining and the world-building interesting. The magic isn’t the wands and spells kind. Witches receive a gift in their coming of age ceremony, and these talents range from potion-making to flying and shape-shifting. It’s innate, and hereditary, rather than learned like at Hogwarts.

CHARACTERS

Nathan had a really strong voice, and this elevated my enjoyment of the novel. I did find the secondary characters—Nathan’s family,the people he meets on his journey, and the villains—to be rather flat. This might be more a product of the style than a defect in the writing. There’s not a lot of opportunity to build nuanced and detailed secondary characters because of the nature of Nathan’s perspective. Still, I wished there would have been more focus on Nathan’s relationships with them.

OFF TOPIC

This is a complete aside, but it is weird to read or write about a character that shares a name with someone you know. Mister BS is also commonly known as Nathan, and it’s just SO WEIRD to read about a character that shares his name. I’m glad their aren’t a lot of characters that share my name…because that would probably be more strange. Perhaps this is why some authors make up crazy names?

BOTTOM LINE

This is a strong debut. The ending felt rushed, which is why I’m wondering if there was any revision after ARCs were printed. I’m anxious to see how the story plays out and what more readers will learn about Nathan’s world of black and white witches. It’s a world of moral ambiguity, and will prompt discussion about the nature of evil.

(Also, there might, just might, be a chance that the romance turns in a different direction…and if not, there’s always fanfic…)

Recommended for fans of: Dark urban fantasy, Harry Potter fanfic starring Snape or Draco, or maybe Holly Black

Second opinions:

Annette’s Book Blog: “I really have nothing negative to say about Half Bad. I found it unique, which always helps. The writing is easy and the excitement builds as the plot moves briskly. I care about Nathan and want him to prevail.”

The Guardian: “Green’s writing perfectly reflects the conflict within Nathan’s character, her tight prose contrasting superbly with the often violent events she is describing. With its stunning characterisation, tight plot and dramatic storyline, Half Bad is brilliantly cinematic – personally I can’t wait for either the film or the sequel.”

There Were Books Involved: “If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be intense. From the very first page, I was drawn in by the writing, the emotions, the voice, and the struggles of the main character. “

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