Published: March 3rd 2014 by Penguin
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
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Half Bad by Sally Green is a breathtaking debut novel about one boy's struggle for survival in a hidden society of witches.
You can't read, can't write, but you heal fast, even for a witch.
You get sick if you stay indoors after dark.
You hate White Witches but love Annalise, who is one.
You've been kept in a cage since you were fourteen.
All you've got to do is escape and find Mercury, the Black Witch who eats boys. And do that before your seventeenth birthday.
I didn’t go into Half Bad with any preconceived notions about it and was pleasantly surprised by the strong storytelling and characterisation. I think the world needs to be expanded on, but overall, this is an engaging, compelling read.
The world of Half Bad is interesting, featuring communities of witches hiding among humans (called fains). Witches are divided into White and Black, which disappointingly translates to White witches being good and Black being evil. But I don’t think it was ever explained why White witches are good and Black ones are bad. I did enjoy the pressure the dichotomy put on the main character, Nathan, and now he struggled to find acceptance.
The half-blood son of a White witch mother and Black witch father, Nathan isn’t accepted among the predominantly White witch community he lives in. (See that sentence? That’s why the witches shouldn’t have been categorised as White and Black. The situation in the book is barely distinguishable from racism even without ‘White’ and ‘Black’ thrown into the mix). The premise could have degenerated into a series of clichés, but was kept fresh because of the raw and vivid storytelling. Nathan isn’t a traditional hero, but I like him because of how real and nuanced he seems. His choices aren’t always likeable and his motives aren’t always pure, but I had no problem supporting him.
When we first meet Nathan he is a prisoner in an outdoor cage, beaten and worked hard every day and shackled to his prison at night. The first part of the story is told in second person, pulling readers in and allowing for immediate immersion into the story. The later parts are told more conventionally in first-person, which perfect since they recount how Nathan became a prisoner, and what happens afterwards. This writing style is my favourite aspect of the novel, and I’m looking forward to more of Green’s genius in the upcoming sequels.
I also enjoyed the relationships Nathan has with those around him. He loves and respects his grandmother, who raised him since the death of his mother, and his half-brother Arran, who is easily the nicest, most supportive character in the narrative. I also liked the uneasy relationship Nathan has with his captor, which I know is weird, but there it is. In terms of characterisation, my only disappointment is how the White/Black dichotomy seems to work. Although the White witches aren’t all nice and are shown repeatedly to be as brutal and blood-thirsty as Black witches, I think the only truly grey characters are the half-bloods.
I have enjoyed Half Bad a lot. It surprised me and I ended up reading it in two sittings (and one of them was on public transport!) The book ended on a great note and I’m looking forward to the sequel, Half Wild.