I’d seen Half Bad in the library where I work a number of times, but hadn’t been interested enough to pick it up until my friend Cait @ Paper Fury was raving about it on Twitter and elsewhere. Since work’s been really quiet the last couple of days, bar about twenty minutes of crowd control here and there, I decided to read it today, and then I decided to start book two as well.
To cut a long story short, I’ve now read the first two books and I’ve reserved the third one at the local library because we haven’t acquired it yet and I don’t have the authority to buy books for the library. At this stage. Which is … probably a good thing.
Despite this enthusiastic response, or simply fast response, I wouldn’t say I entirely fell in love with these books. They have a lot that intrigues me: witches, and their place in the world; uncomfortable family dynamics; interesting magic systems; miserable, tortured protagonists. I liked that they were fantasy in the real world but, by virtue of not focusing on interactions with ordinary humans (known as ‘fains’ in this series), avoided the boring and often overused trope of spending half the book trying to convince characters that magic is real.
Instead, it focuses on characters who know very well that it’s real, and have more important things to worry about. Basically, we’re looking at a conflict between good and evil: White Witches and Black Witches. Obviously, the idea of white witches and black magic is not a new one, but it did make me think of Peter Grant, in the series by Ben Aaronovitch, and his insistence that evil magic-users should be known as ‘ethically challenged’ because it was less racist. It was a joke (mostly), but it’s impossible to ignore the racial overtones of a character being mocked and ostracised for being ‘half black’.
To a certain extent, these may have been deliberate, but since the Black Witches do seem to be evil (for the most part), it stays away from actually challenging that idea. I’m not saying the book’s racist or anything — it’s more the underlying language of fantasy that we use unconsciously and the way it reflects on our own society. It’s an age-old thing, and while Aaronovitch may have been having Peter Grant make a joke motivated by his own biracial heritage, he also raises an important point.
Anyway. Back to the book I’m actually reviewing. The plot is pretty good. I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but basically Nathan (the protagonist whose name I constantly forgot throughout, weirdly) is the child of a White Witch and a Black Witch and is being constantly subjected to rules and limitations about what eh can do, because witch society doesn’t like this. So he’s kept away from White Witches, he’s tormented, he’s kept in a cage for two years… really, it gets worse and worse.
Despite this, he remains remarkably non-angsty, which is quite refreshing. Sure, he’s bitter, but he doesn’t have the wallowing misery that a lot of characters have and which can be infuriating to read.
A lot of the characters are very interesting. There is a hint of romance that develops more in book two, and a slight tinge of a love triangle, and I have to say: while I can see why Nathan is interested in Annalise (because she’s basically the only person who is kind to him at a certain point in his life), I couldn’t find it in myself to care about her at all. She doesn’t do anything interesting enough to catch my attention. Gabriel, on the other hand, is a much more interesting character, and if that love triangle is going to go anywhere then I am definitely #teamgabriel.
Even if he’s a bit melodramatic with his declarations of love.
I also liked the way magic is used, the way witch society is structured and has rituals. Sure, having to undergo a particular ritual at the age of seventeen that will decide the course of your life and if it doesn’t happen might kill you is a fairly typical proponent of a YA novel, but it doesn’t seem that in the context, and it makes sense.
Why didn’t I love it, then? Well, put simply, the writing style. It has voice. It suits the character of Nathan, who can neither read or write without a lot of help. He wouldn’t be using fancy words and complex sentences, constructing beautiful poetic descriptions. The book isn’t badly written; for the most part it’s serviceable prose that evokes the feelings and setting of each scene.
It’s even got some moments that seemed very innovative, though more in book two than the first book. But … well. It just wasn’t quite enough. In places it was overly simplistic, and while some people might have liked the style and found it helped them get absorbed in the story, I found the opposite. It just didn’t suit me.
Because of that, I found it hard to love the story as much as I wanted to. Combined with Annalise’s completely uninteresting nature and Gabriel’s lack of the screentime he deserved (he gets more in book two, but still not enough), I felt the book wasn’t quite focusing on the things that I, as a reader, wanted it to focus on. Again, many readers would disagree. But as a matter of taste, I found there was too much focus on the things that didn’t interest me, and the writing style made it hard to overlook that.
In particular, I felt some of the dialogue could have used some work to make it more natural-sounding and realistic. I’m aware that Half Bad is Sally Green’s debut novel, and I have stupidly high standards about dialogue (it’s a pet peeve), so don’t read too much into that.
But basically, a very cool concept and story, but not quite cool enough to counteract the flaws that stopped me loving it.