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Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab

Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

YA Book Review: Half Bad by Sally Green

This will not be spoiler free, so bewaar.

I don't bother with 'Professional' reviews... also they end up much longer than I anticipate... sorry 'bout that.


Within the last month, I wrote about magic in children's books and Roald Dahl, including The Witches, then I wrote about the film Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters movie.

Well, I don't know what is going on but I noticed this book at work the other day (I work in a bookstore) and it caught my attention because of the striking black and red cover with silver lettering. Casually I flipped the book over, but instead of finding a blurb, I found a mirror image of the front cover! I immediately wrote the title down on my hand and checked the synopsis on Amazon, which is the same one on Goodreads.

You can't read, can't write, but you heal fast, even for a witch.
You get sick if you stay indoors after dark.
You hate White Witches but love Annalise, who is one.
You've been kept in a cage since you were fourteen.
All you've got to do is escape and find Mercury, the Black Witch who eats boys. And do that before your seventeenth birthday.

... and that's it. That's literally all we get. All that I know is it's about witches and it's a (YA) fantasy. The Amazon book description had some very bizarre reviews of Half Bad, the ones by Kate Atkinson and Fiona Wilson... well, I suppose it doesn't matter. This is about the book.

So it was one of those awesome times where the book was half price and with my staff discount I paid £3.20, which not even Amazon could do, brand new. As an avid book reader, it sure is a relief to get the odd discount. I wonder how much all the books in my room rack up to?

It all started...

I was surprised I prioritised this book before the one I have to read for university, but I guess I was too excited about it. It's been months since I read a book for the joy of it. I started reading it on the way to London Super Comic Con and finished in just over a day. Though it must be noted, some pages have only one paragraph on them and the writing isn't MINISCULE like many fantasy books. Plus, the language is easy to grasp. Thank goodness for that. Studying English Lit at university is great, but it does zap the fun sometimes.

The Witch In The Dark deviantart work by zactuger


Now here is the OTHER blurb, as displayed on Fantastic Fiction, and the London Film and Comic Con site.
 GOODREADS description....

In modern-day England, witches live alongside humans: White witches, who are good; Black witches, who are evil; and sixteen-year-old Nathan, who is both. Nathan's father is the world's most powerful and cruel Black witch, and his mother is dead. He is hunted from all sides. Trapped in a cage, beaten and handcuffed, Nathan must escape before his seventeenth birthday, at which point he will receive three gifts from his father and come into his own as a witch - or else he will die. But how can Nathan find his father when his every action is tracked, when there is no one safe to trust - not even family, not even the girl he loves? 
In the tradition of Patrick Ness and Markus Zusak, Half Bad is a gripping tale of alienation and the indomitable will to survive, a story that will grab hold of you and not let go until the very last page.

MUCH better. Right? Am I right? Man, that other teaser one had me tripping!

So, lets talk a little bit about WITCHES.

Fantasy Concept: The Classic Witch.

I do adore the Classic Witch, complete with broomstick, hat and wand. As I said in my post about Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters, I prefer the mystical culural aspect of classic witches. They seem much more in tune with nature and very reclusive, which gives such a sense of intrigue that (unless they're pure evil) you kinda want to venture into their world.

Fantasy Concept: The Modern Witch.

I grew up watching Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, with a bit of Buffy the VS - other than that, I didn't engross myself too much with the Modern Witch aspect of fantasy, even though you can find them literally (okay, figuratively) everywhere. Naturally, the Classic and Modern versions are closely linked. I think the fact that Modern Witches have magical dilemmas tied up with life issues demystifies it a bit for me. Classic Witch = magic is a way of life. Modern Witch = magic solves your (family/career/boyfriend/insert here) problems.

The Verdict?
Well I'm not a huge fan of witches generally speaking, there are other fantasy figures I prefer, but I do find them intriguing. As long as there's a strong sense of culture, I'm down.

And that's why I decided to read Half Bad.

The Book: Half Bad

This story is extremely compelling.

The book begins with a passage in second-person.

Oh, first can I just say how refreshing it is to read a YA book by a young male. I normally find protagonists in straight-up Fantasy are men or boys, and in YA Fantasy they are almost always teenage girls. Nathan was a great protagonist because he's so complex. On one hand he seems like a fighter and he wants justice, on the other his own motives are unclear in terms of Good and Evil, and there's a vulnerability that really makes you emphasise with him.

Okay, moving on :3

The second person was extremely interesting. My own venture into second person was in a short story I wrote called #7 which was inspired by a crazy wacky amazing dream that I had, and I did it because in the dream I had no identity and 2nd Per strips that away perfectly - which is what I felt happened with Nathan.

By starting the book in 2nd Person, you have absolutely no clue what the protag is like and you aren't told anything. So you have to kind of assume things and piece his identity together by the way he's treated, his thoughts and behaviour - and that was quite fun to do. His calculated actions make him appear cleverer than he's willing to let on. I love that trait in protags. Nathan has the same strategic mindset that made me (- to my own surprise -) warm to Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games so much.

So far so good, and I'm enjoying Half Bad.

The next bit, and now we get into first person. By this time we know what his goals and motivations are, and so we're allowed to root for him now. When it began, I guessed him to be between six and nine. When it is revealed that his age is eleven, I was stunned because it made me feel that he has the mentality of a younger child, possibly as a mental protection from the constant abuse and shunning he receives.

Jessica seems like terrifying person and I couldn't immediately be sure if she was his mother, sister, or some other captor. What was creepiest about the way she abuses him is that you know she's related to him, and yet she treats him worse than his captor that we saw at the start of the book. It turns out that Jessica is his half-sister who blames him for the suicide of their shared mother.

Well, fantasy-speaking, I've Had My Fair Share Of Evil Sisters

- Princess Azula from Avatar: The Legend Of Aang - she's also strategic. And ruthless.
- Cersei Lannister from A Song Of Ice And Fire series, GRRM - Cunning, conniving, sly - need I say more?
- Gret from the Demonata series, Darren Shan - ah, but Gret cares. She wasn't actually a mean person; it was more like the usual brother-sister spats.

Yeah, I've seen a fair few evil bitches. Er, I mean um, sisters. What was wonderful (and awful) about Jessica was her belief that she was so justified in her cruelty to Nathan. Even though we know why she is doing it, it makes that realisation of her belief so much worse and of course, easier to hate her.

It was very very easy to completely warm to Arran. Alongside all of this cruelty we have a character who is effortlessly and constantly gentle and always kind to Nathan, the way he was described was just beautiful to me, and not overdone. I like the way Nathan's family was crafted, but Arran was probably my favourite character in the book. One image that sticks in my mind is when Arran and Nathan watching a movie and there's this description of their skinny legs stretched out from the sofa. I dunno why I remember that so much, it was just really visual and reminded me of lazy days with my own brothers, cocooned by cushions.

Other characters
In a sense, Half Bad is a fantasy adventure, so I knew some characters we'd see painfully little of. Mercury was such a great character, and so cunning! I loved that. I really liked Bob and Mary, but I also think their 'screen-time' was just perfect. Any more and it might not have been believable - they are, after all, strangers to Nathan.

I also liked Annalise... and also disliked her, if you feel me. She was so perfect that although I rooted for her and Nathan, just for the sake of Nathan getting his fairy tale ending, by herself, she was simply too good to exist. We still don't really know why she didn't stay away from Nathan like everyone else, and if it really IS love, and thus unexplainable, then I knew something significant would have to happen to make me really want to believe in her. I felt like, "Tell me she's noble! Or else that she's strong, courageous, clever... anything! Give her a special trait!" Because her perfection was intriguing to me and I loved her wonderfully visual description, but the only notable thing she did was run away from her family, which isn't a great feat in this book because of everything Nathan has already done. So although I like her, I hoped she'd be turned from a plastic Barbie doll into a real character.

Oh yeah, Nathan
I liked the progress of him growing up and developing as a character - sometimes he says he throws in swear for a certain effect, the actual swear isn't revealed in the book which I like, (it's easy to overdo it... *sigh* you know when you wish some books weren't published?) but as the tale goes on his sudden bursts of rage are unpredictable and he swears as an expression of that. By this point he like 16 and I found that quite realistic.

The Little Things...
- The Fantasies chapter. I just loved that. I could picture strongly in my head about his secret fantasy living with his Mum and Dad in the woods and having the ideal life. It made you feel so bad for him, with his mother passed and his father estranged from him.
- The chapters were never capitalised. I wonder why. Maybe a reminder of his illiteracy. Though of course technically there would be no words at all if... WELL YOU GET WHAT I'M TRYNA SAY.
- When I finished the book and closed it, only then did I realise, with a shock, that the black and white front cover was symbolising the White and Black halves of Nathan. THEN I leaned back and realised the smoke was half his face! Pshh, I am dumb. The cover is awesomeness.

A bit of criticism. The story is based very strongly on uncertainty; Nathan never knows what is going to happen to him, so we as the readers are strung along, forever guessing. I quite liked that. My only little gripe, was sometimes it did follow the Typical Or Rather Inevitable Path of story progression.

For example. Ellen. I feel as if she is introduced to be a possible love interest. I like her character but I don't really see any other point in her being here or how she serves the story, other than being somebody that Nathan can relate to as she is also a Half Code - and in the painfully obvious genre that is YA, that's usually a cue for romance. If he doesn't end up with Annalise, we all know who's next in line. For the sake of YA, I hope I'm proved wrong. I'm very tired of YA stories not proving me wrong. This is why this genre is very very sucky right now.

Another example. Beautiful girl takes a shine to the cursed boy. She has two older brothers. From the moment I was given this knowledge, it signalled to me that Nathan was gonna get beat up by the brothers. The actual attack wasn't how I was expecting so I was glad for that. Not exactly a 'problem' though. This is what I call the 'problem':

Two thirds of the way through, the way Nathan kept talking about his Dad made me suspect he would show up, or Nathan would reach him. Halfway through, my hunch became a certainty, and I believed strongly that Marcus would definitely show up at no other time than RIGHT at the end, particularly if it was a Save The Day sort of circumstance. And when it finally happened, boy was I disappointed.

My issue about my own criticism is that I can't say exactly WHAT I was expecting.  On the one hand, I liked that it WASN'T what I was expecting, that Marcus didn't burst in with all this bravado throwing his powers everywhere like "Look at me, I'm the shit."

And yet, I disliked that scene. I wouldn't say it let down the whole book, not at ALL. But it was the worst bit of the book. Marcus was aloof, dismissive, abrupt and unfeeling, and I kinda hoped he would have a bit more personality, at least enough for a polarised reaction; either a wonderful scene of recognition and father-son chemistry, or the awful realisation that Marcus would never be the father he dreamed of anyway and Nathan's hopes had been futile all along. Instead Nathan was a bit more like, 'Well, not exactly what I was expecting... but hey I got my Gift!' and then it's forgotten.

I'm frustrated typing this because I literally can't describe my confused thoughts any clearer! Urgh. I can't say exactly what was wrong, but something wasn't right.

Also, the fact that his father does nothing - "Oh, you're 17? I didn't know. Yet somehow I have three gifts for you... and now, Bye Bye!" - and is only in it for two pages made me suddenly realise that this was not a stand alone book. This was a teaser. We weren't getting nuthiiiin. This was a build up for another book!

And sure enough, I groaned aloud when I turned to that last page advertising the sequel. It could have been self-contained, if it wasn't for the Marcus-issue and the Annalise-issue. A shame. So I've been hooked, then.

Interesting fact: Vampire Academy was advertised at the back of the book, which I found interesting. I read it years and years ago, when YA was still teenage fiction and it wasn't the first YA fantasy I'd read but it was my favourite.

The Verdict

4 Sha's. c:

I love this story because the White witches are meant to be 'good' and the Black witches 'evil', but it's is obvious that the line between good and evil is extremely unclear. The White Witches, from Nathan's experience, are just as brutal, heartless and egotistic as the Black, the only difference is their motives, and of course they're harmless if you're on their side.

The writing, the setting, the characterisation and exploration of the concept of witches made this a really good read.

Guess What?

According to the website, Sally Green will be at London Film and Comic Con (HERE for more details) and also DARREN SHAN, author of The Demonata series, will be there! Isn't that just the bidniz? If I take both of the books, I wonder if I can get them signed. Sweetness.

My brain is completely shutting down. I just cannot write anything else tonight, maybe for a while. It's kinda killing me. My book and university assignments will both have to wait. Peace outtt.

Ashana Lian .

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