A Strong Debut
by Sally Green
Series: Half Bad Trilogy (Book 1 of 3)
Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
In modern-day England, witches live alongside humans: White witches, who are good; Black witches, who are evil; and sixteen-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 seventeenth 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?
Sally Green’s debut novel Half Bad seems poised to be one of the most talked about YA books of the year. Unbeknownst to me when I signed up with Penguin’s First to Read program for early access to the book, Half Bad is its own media machine. Green, a latecomer to writing, is being compared to J.K. Rowling. The novel is slated for publication in myriad languages worldwide, and has been optioned for a film by Fox 2000, who won the rights in a heated bidding war. Karen Rosenfelt, producer of Twilight and The Book Thief, will take the helm.
For Half Bad, Ms. Green has created a remarkable opening sequence that pulls you inextricably into its clutches. The early part of the novel is suitably disorienting — you’ll be a little perplexed as to what exactly is happening and how the protagonist, Nathan, came to be in his situation. But you’ll find the tale positively riveting. This world of White and Black witches feels so much its own habitation, its own time and place, that when a reference to a pair of red Nikes was made, I was surprised to find it was actually a modern, contemporary setting.
The backdrop of conflict between the two factions of witches has interesting parallels (unintended according to the author) to historical race relations. The Whites are a powerful, “pure” ruling class whose Council sets ever-changing regulations and policies called “Notifications” that make it dangerous to be of anything but pure blood. It’s deadly to be a witch of mixed birth like Nathan, part white and part black, a “half-code”. The Council’s Notifications, at times eerily reminiscent of US Census classifications of race, lend a realism to this other-worldly realm where witches live among humans or “fains”.
The story moves along nicely with few hiccups. However, this is a debut novel, and there are times when that shows. But Green largely manages to avoid common pitfalls of new writers, like plot contrivances. There was one instance where I groaned aloud because I thought, “Oh, no, she’s done it. She’s made Nathan make a careless mistake just to get him in a bind.” He did get in a spot of trouble, but luckily it wasn’t a big deal in terms of having major consequences in shaping the overall plot. Late in the novel, there is an instance you could argue is a contrivance, but I feel there’s enough justification to make it a likely occurrence.
Nathan has just enough complexity to make you want to learn more about him. Happily, Nathan’s world isn’t a simplified setting like the old cinematic Westerns where the good guys wear white hats and the bad men wear black. Through its depictions of Nathan and several other major characters, Half Bad reminds us how much Hamlet’s words (which Ms. Green quotes before beginning the narrative) ring true: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The inherent goodness of a person should not be measured in absolutes, for things are not always black and white. Each of us has the potential to be good or bad. We are all blends of darkness and light.
— Dawn Teresa
4 of 5 Hearts. A Strong Debut.
A suspenseful coming-of-age fantasy with elements of a heroic quest. An interesting world rooted in enough realism to make it feel all the more plausible. Dark and, at times, unflinchingly violent, but never gratuitously so. Recommended for ages 13 and up.
If you enjoyed book 1, you’ll be pleased to know that book 2, Half Wild, is coming in 2015.