Half Bad by Sally Green
First Read / Library Book
This book is like a sadistic Demon’s Lexicon.
TW: gore, death, violence, suicide, torture, parent death, imprisonment
(I am too tired to write a blog post, would it be gauche to just leave it like that?)
Half Bad takes place in a Britain with a small, secret witch population. There are WHITE WITCHES and BLACK WITCHES and the white witches have things like counsels and edicts and they like to hunt the black witches down and kill them. The white witches claim moral superiority but behave disgustingly throughout. The black witches, on the other hand, also feel good about themselves, but they tend to run around murdering people and one another, particularly if they’ve married into each other’s families. So whatever moral questions might be raised in this book, the answer is generally, no, they are all horrible, how would you like this scene of excruciating violence.
Important note: the only characters not described as racially white (actually described, not just left to the reader’s white-defaulting imagination) are Black Witches. There is not enough time spent fleshing out this odd tiny culture to definitively say whether this is an authorial commentary on racism or is, in fact, racism. In any case I am not sure what the commentary would be, since as I said, pretty much everyone is a murderer in this darn book.
BUT THE PLOT. WHAT IS THE PLOT?
Nathan is half-White and half-Black (witch) (he appears to be brownish). His mother is dead of suicide and his father is THE WORST WITCH* IN ALL OF BRITAIN OR WHEREVER HE HAPPENS TO BE. Probably the counsel of white witches would just kill Nathan like they kill all the Black Witches, but first his test results keep being unclear, and then they probably want to use Nathan to catch said bad dad. It’s not immediately apparent that he’s the only “Half Code” in Britain because the counsel keeps sending him edicts (increasingly restricting his movement) to the tune of “all Half Codes”. When you do find out that all of this stuff, framed as far-reaching, is specifically targeting him, it’s very chilling. Eventually they take him from his family and he’s kept in a cage for awhile by a white witch named Celia. Eventually he gets out of the cage and goes on the run.
There’s also a sort of nascent romance plot with this white witch girl he goes to school with, AND THERE IS LATE IN THE BOOK A SURPRISE GAY FRIEND PLOT TWIST???? WILL NATHAN TURN GAY OR IS HIS FRIEND’S GAYNESS JUST A NECESSARY FOR HIS ROLE OF CLIFFHANGER DAMSEL IN DISTRESS? answers unknowable until the second book! Anyway the romance feels very out of place, although I do buy Nathan’s developing oddly intense attachments to anyone who has been nice to him.
The book is not chronological. It opens in the future, dabbles with second person for early childhood, reins it in and goes first person for the future, jumps back again in time to cover most of his childhood, and then jumps forward again, in a slightly confusing way, because the second jump happens somewhere in the time period of this last jump but doesn’t actually…happen in it. The effects are there, but the event is invisible on the second pass. I can think of one specific friend who would HATE this. It didn’t bother me, per se, but I can’t say it was entirely effective–I don’t usually mind tense/POV/chronology jumps but these threw me off a little.
The way it’s like a sadistic Demon’s Lexicon is like this, AND THIS MAY BE A SPOILER FOR DEMON’S LEXICON: English kid with black, creepy eyes and a loving brother cannot connect to fellow people, has a hard time reading and writing, is hated by his mother unto death. His father is an evil magic-user. There are witch circles and rules. His father likes to kill people. The shape of the character’s existence actually feels really similar. The crucial difference is that Nathan is always fairly certain both of his own monstrosity and the nature of it; it’s a much more bitter and cynical version of Nick’s living with himself. If Sarah Rees Brennan were merciless to her characters, you could imagine that this is the life her character would have instead of the one she gave him.
In general though, it has some serious violence, and I read the whole thing in under three hours of commuting because I kept speed-stress-reading past all the horrifying parts.
Maybe it was the speed or maybe it was the book–I found it a little difficult to settle in and find deep roots. But I think I’d read the next one when it comes out, at a similar pace, because I am interested to know what happens, even if the ending was sequel-bait and that is one of my worst peeves in YA fiction.
I think I need to read something that’s not overtly violent for awhile. HOW DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?
*Not like The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy. Another, more murderous witch.