Half Bad by Sally Green review

In the run-up to the announcement of the UK YA Book Prize I’m reading each of the books on the shortlist. For more details about my reading challenge and the shortlist click here.

18079804Nathan Byrne is half bad. He’s half White Witch… half Black Witch. His mother was a healer… his father is a killer. He’s wanted by no one… but hunted by everyone.

This is a book that I want to tell everyone to read. It’s brutal, but compelling. It’s at times heart-breaking, at others life-affirming. It features witches and magic, one of the oldest themes in the history of writing, but it doesn’t feel clichéd or derivative. (Nathan Byrne makes Harry Potter look like a complete pansy. And there let all comparisons end.) It’s also about choices, about identity and the nature of evil, and about surviving against all odds. Because life is precious, even when the life you’ve been lumbered with is nothing you hoped it would be.

Told in one of the most arresting, distinctive voices I’ve encountered in fiction in a while, Nathan’s story is gripping, right from page one. When we first meet him he is in a cage. We know very little about him or how he got there: this mystery and the immediacy of his narration of day-to-day life in captivity make for an irresistible opening. As details rise to the surface we discover that Nathan is the son of Marcus, the most powerful of all Black Witches, born to a White Witch mother, who died soon after. In a society dominated by White Witches, in which Black Witches are hunted systematically in what can only be described as a form of ethnic cleansing, a ‘Half Code’, as Nathan is designated, is not something you want to be. His true nature will only become apparent on his seventeenth birthday – but the Council of White Witches seem to have already made their minds up about him. Why wouldn’t a son turn out to be just like his evil father, despite the fact that he has never had any contact with the man?

As far as the reader is concerned, the jury’s out on Nathan. There is nothing about him that seems inherently bad. He certainly doesn’t want to be bad. But circumstances force him to make some tough decisions and do some things that he regrets. It’s this constant internal battle that makes him such an interesting character. He is endlessly persecuted and alienated, and I really felt for him in that respect. He’s also stubborn and violent, and by no means a vulnerable and fragile victim. It was his resilience and ability to find a mental trick to overcome any situation that made me admire rather than pity him. And the simple fact that some of the so-called White Witches do some pretty messed up, nasty stuff that made him look almost a saint by comparison. The jury’s out on Marcus, too. Nathan is desperate to meet his father, and desperate to believe that he isn’t all bad. Reading from Nathan’s POV, you can’t help but want for him to be right about his dad.

This isn’t a ‘nice’ book to read. There is a lot of violence. There are some pretty gruesome torture scenes – both physical and – at the hands of Nathan’s cruel wannabe Hunter sister Jessica – emotional. There is something very unpleasant involving tattoos that I still can’t bring myself to think about without retching. Yet none of this felt gratuitous or superfluous to the storyline. There is also love – sibling love between Nathan and his brother Arran and sister Deborah, and forbidden love between Nathan and pure-as-snow White Witch Annalise – giving rise to some truly touching moments in the book. I loved the setting, moving from the Welsh hills, to the Scottish countryside to the back streets of London. What I enjoyed most of all was the punchy, vivid writing style, that seemed at once untamed and precise. For a book with a fantasy premise it feels very real – none of the characters are straightforward good or evil, none of the choices they face are easy either. And you know what, I’m really not a fan of books about witches. But I’m a fan of this one.

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

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