I’m a little gun-shy these days of over-hyped YA trilogies. I suspect you might be, too. We’ve been inundated with them over the past few years and with a handful of outstanding exceptions, too many have been largely forgettable. Largely this is due the Quick Capitalization Phenomenon. Strike while the iron is hot! Trilogies like The Hunger Games proved that the public is eager to spend their disposable income on these books so publishers have been buying them up as quickly as authors can churn them out —- with mixed results, in my opinion.
But there have been some gems out there for those willing to go there one more time. And for Sally Green’s new novel, Half Bad, I was ready. And you should be, too. Because this is good stuff.
We meet sixteen year old Nathan Byrne in present day England. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nathan is an orphan. Nathan is also a witch. Apparently there is a healthy population of witches living among the mere mortals of the world. On the surface, they seem to be simply categorized: a witch is either White or Black. Good or Evil.
Oh, that life would be so simple.
Because Nathan, we quickly learn, is the orphan son of a White and a Black witch. He is, in their world, a Half Code. And this is a big, big problem. Raised by his mother’s family of White witches after his mother commits suicide and his fugitive Black Witch father disappears, Nathan comes under increasingly intense scrutiny by the council of White Witches who - as it turns out - are not near as lily white as one might think.
For a Young Adult novel, Green’s work is dripping in adult themes. The lengths to which the White Witches will go to maintain the purity of their race involves explicit scenes of Nathan’s physical torture as well as the [justifiable] evolution of Nathan himself as a anti-hero. His mother has killed herself - ostensibly because of him. His father is not only a murderer, but he eats his victims. Both our protagonist and the readers must deal with a lot of adult ideas and situations here.
When Nathan finally emerges from the clutches of his White witch captives, it is perhaps understandable that he no longer has a clear idea of what is good and what is evil in the world. What he has been indoctrinated with since birth is in direct conflict with his experiences.
What then, Nathan logically wonders, is he? As a Half Code is he good or is he evil? More important, what isgood or evil? And this is the basic theme that will speak to the Young Adult adult audience, just as it has to generations of young adults before them.
Nathan’s journey to discover these answers moves the plot along at a fairly quick pace as he begins the journey to find his father, Marcus - a journey laced with danger and clearly the foundation of the second novel in the trilogy.
Ultimately, Green’s work here is impressive. She finds a solid balance between good character development and plot movement. Her world building is detailed enough to draw the reader in without devoting pages and pages to boring descriptions. Those readers just itching to find the inevitable Harry Potter comparisons are likely to be disappointed. This is not a Harry Potter knock-off. This is Nathan Byrne’s world. And it is a much darker, scarier place.
Half Bad made the Spring 2014 Kids’ Indie Next List and is a Publishers Weekly and Booklist Starred Review. You'll also find this review posted at The Lit Asylum.