Context is overrated, info dumps can be a drag, and sometimes it is best to just jump into the middle of The Story. Half Bad, a very strong outing by Sally Green, is all the better for this. It starts with a bang and only teases the reader with a greater context throughout, answering some questions while leaving others always tantalizingly out of reach.
Meet Nathan, son of the most notorious black witch around. No, belay that; BE Nathan, son of the most notorious black witch around as the story starts off with you in a cage. Yes YOU, as Half Bad switches between a second person narration and first person several times. It is an interesting experiment that ultimately works; Nathan’s emotions come through even better as the reader is forced to live them in times of turmoil.
Nathan is a half-code, born of a black witch father and a white witch mother. That context issue comes up here. Though we immediately learn that white witches are considered good and black witches are evil it is unclear whether this designation is genetic or more arbitrary; ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter. The white witches are in power and see themselves holding the right cause. Anything they do is just and this takes young Nathan from a bad situation to increasingly worse ones. Edict after edict is passed to restrict Nathan’s, and his very small family support groups’, freedom. All, it appears, to use him to catch his father. Flashbacks to early life show all the stops that ultimately lead to the first page of the book; Nathan living in a cage with a harsh caretaker.
This book is an interesting study of themes with real world context but without directly aping something form our modern times. The hatred of black witches and everything attached to them seems to reek of racist oppression, or red scare tactics, or even counter-terrorism measures. But instead of being preachy there isn’t enough detail to be morally sure of anything. Because it appears that black witches really DO have some nasty things going on in their background; full of murder and rage. At the same time the stories Nathan gets of black witches all come from white witches; no context to the stories is given making it harder to ascertain just how true any of this is. Certainly the tactics of the white witches prove themselves capable of seems to be just as evil as what the black witches are accused of. But what makes all this so interesting, at least to me, is the uncertainty of knowing if these are evil tactics to fight evil or evil tools of oppression.
Half Bad is set in modern England though it hardly matters only Nathan’s issues with modern technology really necessitate a time frame at all. For the most part the story is fairly timeless. And while dealing with witches and magic it is actually a pretty low magic affair. Instead this is simply Nathan’ story. We see his lows (and there are a lot of them, don’t expect a lot of sunny moments). WE glimpse the few good things in his life; kindness from an unexpected source or the unbreakable relationship he has with is brother and grandmother. And while the bad heavily outweighs the good there is an incredible sweetness to it that will ender several characters to even the most heartless reader.
I tore through this book in a couple of sittings. While it moved a bit slower in the final third, and was hampered somewhat at the end by a plot turn that everyone should see coming, it proved to be a great reading experience throughout. A young adult book with adult themes and a unique style, there isn’t much here that I don’t recommend.
Copy for review provided by publicist.