Over the next ten weeks I will be reading and reviewing the shortlisted books for the inaugural YA Book Prize. I’m thrilled that the diverse and thriving UK YA scene is being celebrated. I’m also thrilled that The Casual Vacancy is going to be on TV soon! It’s so full of horrible characters, I’m excited for it.
Half Bad is the first book in a trilogy about an alternate version of contemporary Britain (and elsewhere) that is populated by not just ordinary people – “Fains” – but also by two duelling factions of witches: Black and White. Our hero, Nathan, is the most extraordinary of witches, not because of his abilities but because of his parentage. His father is a Black Witch and his mother a White Witch. In a world mostly controlled by White Witches, this doesn’t bode well for anyone, least of all Nathan, who we meet at the beginning in a cage.
The opening of the novel is striking in a number of ways. It’s written in second person, in short, punchy chapters. It’s brutal – Nathan might have healing powers but that doesn’t mean the violent abuse he suffers at the hands of the “goodies” is any less horrific. We’re thrown immediately into this situation with this stranger. Who is the narrator?* How did he get here? And how will he escape? Reading on is irresistible.
I liked reading Nathan’s backstory. Green portrays the cruelty and prejudice he faces with heartbreaking effect, and the glimpses we get into the greater workings of the Witch world are intriguing. It’s not the most unique world ever built in fantasy fiction, and these witches seem more into bureaucracy than actual witchcraft, but it’s all interesting enough and you can’t help but be firmly in Nathan’s corner.
Then halfway through, Nathan breaks free of his cage and the plot seems to lose its way. The middle of the book is shapeless and tedious, with Nathan basically being shunted between characters. I also just didn’t buy that he could hide out on the streets of London for so long without being found. (Unless this is foreshadowing for his gift of stealth.) Dozens more characters are added and underdeveloped, and then suddenly Nathan is in Geneva. I found myself lost and losing interest.
I’m glad I finished the book, though, because the ending gave me hope for the rest of the series. Nathan’s delirious staggering through the forests is gorgeously written, really making the most of the first person narration. Then a long-awaited character shows up in a genuinely satisfying scene, and all of a sudden we’re at the end.
Half Bad has lots of potential and Sally Green is a good writer. The world she creates for her characters and readers is dark and addictive, and I do want to know what happens next. This book is a flawed first instalment in what might be a pretty great fantasy series.
*I found this review interesting, because the reviewer points out bluntly, “Nathan is not a boy.” I haven’t been reading the blurbs of the shortlisted books closely, and I was surprised when reading this one that the narrator wasn’t a girl.