Here goes my list of YA titles to be read this year. I will try to make reviews spoiler free, but don’t read them if you plan to read the book (!), I can’t promise safety. All opinions expressed are my own. These are personal reflections, sometimes they are harsh but mostly critical – nothing more.
I’ve never done this before. I am likely to ramble as I work my way through.
TBR: Cinder by Marissa Meyer (The Lunar Chronicles #1);Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass #1); The Fault in our Stars by John Green; Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (Red Queen #1); Carry On by Rainbow Rowell; Made You Up by Francesca Zappia; Mosquitoland by David Arnold; All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven; Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli; Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon; Hollow Pike by Juno Dawson
Half Bad by Sally Green (01/02-10/02)
Half Bad was published in 2014 by Puffin Books and is Sally Green’s debut work. On March 2014 it set a world record for being the most translated debut book by a first time author pre publication – 45 different translations were made.
Half Bad is set in modern-day Europe, where witches and humans (fains) live side by side. There are the Black Witches and there are the White Witches. The young protagonist, Nathan, is half White and half Black. His mother is dead, and his father is the most powerful and the most feared Black Witch in the world. We follow Nathan as he grows up and is eventually trapped, tortured and abused by the Council of White Witches. Nathan has to escape before his seventeenth birthday, when he should receive three gifts and his magical ability. There are rumours that if a Black Witch does not receive their gifts they will quickly waste away.
First things first: the book cover is beautiful. Simple and smart.
Initially I was attracted to the idea of someone growing up in a completely hostile environment, where everything works against him – including his heritage. The mention of witches definitely tipped the scale, but I believe sharing a name with the main character had a lot to do with it…
The thing that surprised me about Half Bad was the ‘experimental’ writing style. The narrative shifts from second to first person and the text is physically altered to reflect the timing of the narration – this works well at the beginning, but the exoticism tapers off quickly and the language transforms from ‘blunt’ to overly simple. There are a number of occasions when this works well alongside Nathan’s unreliable narration. The boy hasn’t had much of an education in the traditional sense, he loathes reading and can barely write (I suspect dyslexia) – he is observant and action focused – not the verbose type. This simple, single minded point of view can also explain the lack of depth in other characters.
When it came to action scenes the writing felt weak, a flourish of details and non-sequential movements that often left me puzzled as to what exactly happened. Towards the end, where the action gets tough, there were a number of decisions and situations that defied common sense and logic… The “massive cliffhanger” that ends this book, the first installation of a trilogy, felt rather soggy and cliche and left me neither hot nor cold. To be fair the malaise that was growing in me from page 50 would have been very difficult to displace.
The Black vs White dichotomy is trodden thin with wear, but to Green’s credit she tries her best to show us that goodness and good actions have nothing to do with being on the ‘right’ side (or being a White witch). In fact, the opposite is true – subservience, thoughtless obedience to a cause, achieving a goal “no matter the costs”, separating the world into us and them – are the causes of worldly evil and what the White witch council is all about. The Black witches, bound by their genetics, are always a bit off and are the ones being persecuted. This book definitely had the whiff of ethnic and religious persecution about it, as well as giving coverage to the nature vs nurture debate.
“This grim and thrilling tale, first in a planned trilogy, features understated prose that lets readers’ imaginations fill in the blanks, as well as a well-developed sense of Witch culture. Nathan, the damaged survivor of horrific abuse, is an unforgettable protagonist, and Green expertly captures his torment at being caught between the mutually hostile sides of his heritage.” –Publishers Weekly
On the one hand the narrow, polar point of view which slowly changes as Nathan evolves and begins to see “different shades of grey”, the lack of depth and empathy – fit snugly into the adolescent psyche and can easily draw in a young reader. I felt myself struggle against this pull as I tried to glimpse more of the other characters, as I judged Nathan’s rash actions and unmediated responses – this critical eye is what prevented me from being ‘ensnared’ by the fast paced narration, what made me pause and notice the potholes or the times when the story was running out of steam.
Feeling ostracised from your family and community, feeling lost, hating school, the us vs them mentality, the desire to belong to a group, standing out (reluctantly) from your peers, to have scars (both physical and mental) – a young person (or anyone, really) experiences some of them, sooner or later. Nathan, however, experiences them all. If we strip away the magic, what remains is unspeakable child abuse. This brings me to another aspect of Half Bad – the violence and cruelty. I admit to enjoying some muck and gore here and there, but Half Bad is filled with emotional and psychological torture that tugged at my comfort zone and made me profoundly uncomfortable. My younger self would have surely been mortified. Which is appropriate, considering the context. One too many TV series and movies revel in gratuitous violence and torture, portraying toxic relationship as desirable – often numbing the audience to both fictional and real life danger. Half Bad makes a point of highlighting true horror, that is: the silence and isolation that surrounds everyday injustices that go by unnoticed everyday. A chilling reminder that there is no one to hear you scream.
I admit that I am spoiled when it comes to reading. Half Bad was a compulsive but difficult read, at the end I had to force my way through and was glad to be done. The subject matter and the protagonist are complex and deserve attention; but the story, narrative structure and language felt underdeveloped. I am not certain how purposeful the “understated prose that lets the reader’s minds fill in the blanks” really is – it could be that the reviewer, like myself, was simply filling in the hollows. Overall I feel that Half Bad has promise, but it is not complete.