The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Bloody, But Unbowed (Review: Half Bad by Sally Green)

Half Bad
Sally Green
Penguin 2014

Nathan has been largely unwanted his entire life.  Outcast by the society he was born into he has spent the majority of his life in the fragile care of his grandmother, brother and sister even as another sister torments him with his own nature. Nathan, you see, has been born into a modern Britain inhabited by witches. Good, righteous, White witches and bad, destructive Black ones. Yet Nathan is neither White nor Black but is a Half Code born to a White mother and a particularly notorious Black father. The world that Nathan is growing up in is overseen by a council of White witches who bombard his family with an increasing amount of edicts on how Half Codes should be cared for while endlessly assessing the taciturn boy in order to determine if he is more White... or more Black. Struggling to understand both his nature and his place in the world, Nathan finds himself in a cage, wearing a collar, unable to escape as his thoughts revolve increasingly, desperately, around his murderous father and his own fate.

Nathan is an utterly unique creation, both in his own mythology and in Young Adult literature. It has been a long time since a character has appeared who is so instantly compelling.  I'm going to wager that we last such creation we saw was Patrick Ness's Todd (The Knife of Never Letting Go). Yet, unlike Todd who is all instant emotion and heart, Nathan is harder to get a bead on. Nothing good has ever really happened to him and he has lived a life rather bereft of affection. While his grandmother and, particularly, his brother have tried their hardest to make him feel normal his sister, Jessica, has tormented him almost since babyhood with stories of a mother who hated her child so much she was driven to suicide. Therefore, even as Nathan understands that his treatment by society is unfair, he seems to also believe that he is as much a  danger to them as they suspect. This leaves a character who is rather shut off, remote and sometimes a little frightening in their isolation. As his story progresses, Nathan's character development is interesting yet slow paced.   At times his fight for survival makes him almost immoral and his lack of trust in others makes him seem hard and therefore sometimes hard to like - in large part because he has never had opportunity to be soft, funny or friendly. Yet he is always utterly sympathetic, endlessly (yet never unbelievably) brave and absolutely himself. And he will stay with readers even when the book itself is back on the shelf.

Other characters in Half Bad are generally well realised.  While the Council member's not-so-white-as-whiteness is a more than a tad predictable, Sally Green has ensured that just because this bastion of authority is corrupt one shouldn't assume that Black witches are therefore good. In fact, Black witches sound downright awful and Nathan's encounter with one later in the book doesn't really undermine this. Half Bad, in fact, swims in swathes of grey where the good are flawed, the bad are sometimes good, the weak are strong and the strong are frightened. Nathan's brother, Aaron, shines as a character who seems truly kind, but too gentle for his own good whereas a potential love interest is lovely and carefree and good... possibly. It's all terribly clever and makes for a great mix.  A shout out must go to Gabriel, who appears later in the book and starts to emerge both as Nathan's first ever friend and also as the third angle of a potential love triangle - which, were it to be realised might make love triangles not such a bad thing anymore.

The world building and storytelling in Half Bad more than deserve the buzz which has grown up around this debut since the day it sold to a whopping 44 countries. The mythology of Nathan's world is almost flawless and while the structure (which moves between the present and the past) slows the pacing a little, the narrative itself is so strong that it doesn't really matter. At times the story running through Half Bad is heart-breaking but largely it is a one of defiance and adversity and an exploration of identity and where we find it. To go into the plot in any detail would be to ruin it for potential readers, suffice to say that it is gripping and intriguing - not least when the actual number of existing Half Codes is made apparent which, while subtly executed, will send a shiver down the spine. 

Green's writing is exceptional and this is a book that will appeal not just to teens and fans of YA fiction but also to adults who are more familiar with the literary fiction shelves of the bookstore and library. In style, Green calls to mind Susannah Clarke whose debut Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was equally arresting if a great deal longer and more complex. If there is any criticism to be made of Half Bad it is that not an awful lot happens in the actual present. There is a vague feeling, on finishing the book, that we have only just reached the start of the story proper - but what a story it is building to be! So pick up a copy. Don't let the subject matter put you off if witches and their ilk aren't your bag because with storytelling of this standard, it really doesn't matter. Highly recommended.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Half Bad is published today - hooray!  Thanks to Penguin for sending us a copy of this title to review.

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