Review of HALF BAD (2014) by Sally Greene

GENRE: Dark fantasy thriller.

There are many things I’d like to say about Half Bad, most of which are not half bad at all – they’re all-bad. If you’re the type of person who loves experimental stories, the dark and gritty and all-out controversial, then this just might be the book for you. Give it a try. But if you’re like me and you like the magical, with amazing new worlds and characters you wish were your friends, then this is not your cup of tea at all and you’ll find this review useful.

A pacey supernatural thriller – imagine a dark-as-hell Harry Potter meeting the Bourne Identity’ – Metro

Teens rejoice: the inheritor to Stephenie Meyer’s crown has arrived’- The Times

Author Sally Green lives in North West England with her husband and son. She’s had various jobs but in 2010 she realised she loves writing and hasn’t stopped since. Half Bad is her debut novel.

If you’re like me: Do Not Read This Book.

First note of annoyance – there is no blurb on the front, back, or anywhere inside Half Bad. This might be for marketing reasons, and I have full understanding for why they would leave the blurb out. It gives the book an aura of mystery, inviting you to imagine the plot for yourself. I did this based on the cover and the few keywords floating around on the last page: Nathan Byrne is half bad. He’s half White Witch… half black witch. His mother was a healer… his father a killer. He’s wanted by no one… but hunted by everyone.

There is no mention of an actual plotline, and yet… it sounds intriguing, right? I thought so too. What a clever idea!

Until I started reading it, of course.

I should probably mention that I haven’t finished the book. I couldn’t do it. I’m about halfway through. I put it aside for the night and then… I haven’t felt the urge to pick it back up for weeks. I don’t remember any character’s name. Not even the main one. Here’s the plot as I have gathered it so far:

In a world of witches, Nathan is an outcast. His mother committed suicide when he was young and his father is the magical world’s most famous murderer. The magical council hates Nathan because of his heritage and progressively limits his freedom to prove it. But Nathan is convinced his father is not a bad person. On his fourteenth birthday, just when he is about to set out to find his father, the Council puts Nathan in a cage in the middle of a forest and intends to leave him there with a caretaker. Years pass.

And there is where I left off. Sounds like I quit just when it was about to get interesting? You’re probably right, but the book shouldn’t take 160 pages to get to the beginning of the adventure.

Now, I could have forgiven this crucial error if the first 160 pages had anything else to offer, like great character development or a world of magic (which should be central to the story considering it’s inhabited by witches!), but alas there is no such thing.

Let me introduce the world: Nathan lives in the forest with his grandmother and siblings. What forest? I don’t know. In which part of the country? I don’t know. He is prohibited from going anywhere but to school. Where is it? I don’t know. What’s it called? What does it look like? I DON’T KNOW. “After the fight I leave school at lunchtimes and hang out in the streets nearby.” (p.62) Are you deliberately trying to be as vague as possible? Could you ever give me an actual description of anything?

It took me fifty pages to realise there existed normal (non-witch) people in their world. I thought it was unique to have a world of witches but it turned out to be a cheap Harry Potter rip-off where they try to blend. Seriously.

On to characters – there are no redeemable people in this whatsoever. I understand that Nathan is hated by everyone, but it quickly gets boring. He can interact with two people: his grandmother and his brother (his sister hates him). It doesn’t leave for much character development, not for Nathan and especially not for any other interesting characters who may be out there.

One key point to any story is that we should feel for our protagonist. However bad he may be, we must be able to compare him to someone who is worse. In a way, the book succeeds in this: everyone is worse. On the other hand: everyone is worse. Sure, he’s being badly treated. Boohoo. At times we feel sorry for Nathan. But hey, it’s not like he’s an angel or anything. At times he’s innocent and sweet, at others he uses the fact that he’s unfairly treated to justify him being a jerk. That’s just not okay. Nathan willingly enters fights that he could easily have walked away from, even enjoys them. He does it to be expelled from his school. Then he goes on to befriend a criminal (completely aware) and joins in smoking, ignoring authority, and being a little brat. Are we supposed to feel sympathy?

Emotion is also important. Not only should we be able to sympathise with our hero’s actions, we should connect with his emotions. Only Nathan doesn’t seem to express emotions at all. Not just with others, which would be justifiable, but with the reader. The text is stripped of emotion. Things are rushed, glanced over. Like a detailed list of plot points. “Mr Brown taps on his keyboard and doesn’t look up. Mr Taylor explains that he has found me fighting.” (p.67) And what does Nathan feel about being found out? I don’t know.

And this leads nicely to my next point: the story is told as a flashback until about where I stopped reading. We start with him in the cage, an interesting opening for sure, and then we jump back a few years to when he was about five… and tell the story chronologically from there. Makes sense, don’t get me wrong, but he tells the story like a flashback. No details, no emotion, just plot points. Imagine yourself telling someone your life story for 160 pages. You tell people what happened, not how you felt or how things looked, and you certainly wouldn’t include dialogue, not when you can summarise what was said. Which is often what the book does. “She tells me about her life. Her father and brothers sound like male versions of Jessica, while her mother is an unusually powerless White Witch. (…) I ask her one question that has always intrigued me. How many Half Codes are there? She doesn’t know, but will try and find out from her father, who works for the Council.” (p.86) Would you believe me if I said this is a conversation between Nathan and his love interest, and that this is part of the ‘they’re falling in love’ sequences? No – because that would imply this is a shallow relationship that only Nathan ever understands and doesn’t share with us.

Now to the experimental bits. The first four chapters, and again in the middle of the book, the story is told in second-person viewpoint. “You’re on the floor clutching your ears, looking at her boots before you pass out.” (p.15) I would have no problem with this if it made sense, but it has no reason to be there. It makes a good, strong first impression, and I would understand if it continued throughout the rest of the book, but it switches to first person when the flashback starts and switches back when it ends, but only for one chapter – then it’s back to first person again. Other than making an original impact there is no point.

Finally, there are some good parts to the story. I made a note of them while I was reading because I knew I’d forget otherwise. They aren’t big things. Easily forgotten. It’s one tiny sign of Nathan being an actual person with character traits and some emotion, just after he has been beat up:

“I’m on the table. Like a chicken served for dinner. Gran has her back to me; she is making gravy. Deborah is carrying a bowl that steams. Maybe it has potatoes in it.

‘You’ll be OK. You’ll be OK,’ Arran says. But he says it in a strange way.

Deborah puts the bowl beside me and I know it doesn’t have potatoes in it, and I’m afraid, so afraid. She is going to touch my back. And I beg Arran not to let them touch me.” (p.96)

I think that’s a beautiful, strong sequence. Well-written and really emotional. It was the first time the book grabbed me in any way. I wished it could have continued.

There are some good twists here and there, too, regarding Nathan’s parents. I won’t spoil it for anyone who decides to read this book hoping to have at least something to look forward to, but I thought the twists were pretty clever, and fairly intense.

As a final note, this book isn’t afraid to be gritty. There are torture scenes, sick and vomit, blood, and a lot of screaming and begging for the pain to stop. The torture scenes were too intense for my taste, like watching it on the telly, so I half-skipped them when I could. If that’s your idea of entertainment then – what’s wrong with you? – the book is packed with it.

Thanks for reading!

If you have an opinion of Half Bad or have a book you’d like me to review, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment. See you next time!

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A Weirdly Fascinating Read: Review of Legend, by Marie Lu

Genre: Dystopian young-adult

Legend“He is Day, the boy who walks in the light. She is June, the girl who seeks her brother’s killer.”

What was once the western part of the United States has become the Republic, a world divided between the rich and the poor. June was born into wealth and is a prodigy groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Day was born in the slums and is the world’s most wanted criminal. The two have no reason to cross paths – until June’s brother is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. In a surprising twist, the two meet by chance, neither knowing the other’s past, and they are irresistibly drawn together. But June has sworn to avenge her brother’s death…

Marie Lu is an American author, born 1984 (oh, the irony) in Beijing, China. She moved to Texas at the age of five and later attended the University of Southern California. Before writing Legend she worked as an art designer for the video game industry.

Legend is one of those books that I couldn’t forget for days afterward. Though it is hardly original in its premise (even Lu admits that the story is based on a retelling of Les Misérables), it succeeds in keeping us wondering: ‘What’s going to happen next?’

Already 10 months before publication it was optioned by CBS Films and is rumoured to be produced by the creators of Twilight (and at this mention I will have lost too many readers to count). Critic and author Ridley Pearson wrote in The New York Times: “A fine example of commercial fiction with razor-sharp plotting, depth of character and emotional arc.” I agree that it is a series worth reading. There are, however, also weaknesses and I will be sure to point them out.

It is the classic ‘two worlds collide’ story with a futuristic twist. Let’s face it, most of us love it when opposite ends meet. But – it’s been done to death. What makes Legend different? Well, to be honest, Legend is cliché in places. It is not without faults in either characters, world, or plot, and yet I found it so compelling I couldn’t put it down. I even read it twice.

For all it’s worth (which is quite a lot these days), it is well-written. I’ve read so many books sounding like first drafts lately I’m starting to think the world has secretly murdered all the editors and buried them in an unmarked graveyard in the Arctic.

Granted, Legend’s language isn’t on par with many other greats. It is nothing fancy, but it keeps a fast pace that grips you around the shirt collar and drags you closer to its pages. It’s an action film in book form. The first sentence reads: ‘My mother thinks I’m dead.’ If that’s not a hooking start, I don’t know what is.

Dystopian novels must have a well-thought-out backstory. It has to make sense. If you open a dystopian and it tries to convince you that in an x-amount of years the world will be populated by giant, fire-breathing ants we must be given a pretty darn good reason how we went from here to there.

Now, Legend does have a pretty good backstory story, but we’re not allowed to understand until the sequel. For many people that’s a complete turn-off. Personally, I didn’t mind. I did wonder sometimes (they often mention a war with the Eastern part of the US) but the focus on Day and June kept me too interested to bother about the fine-print. We still learn about things like The Trials (a test which decides your place in society), the labour camps (hiding a sinister secret), the division of wealth, the ‘dictator’, and giant JumboTrons (TV’s) in the sky. I found it easy to join the world.

The characters are the backbone of any story; without people we can identify with it doesn’t matter if it’s the coolest, most original plot we’ve ever heard. We won’t finish it. Legend has quite a small set of people, for better and for worse.

The viewpoints switch between Day and June, which creates an interesting, two-sided story. It also means, however, that we don’t have the time to get to know a lot of other characters. It can be a good thing because we don’t get distracted from their emotional journeys.

On the other hand, less people make the world feel smaller. Focusing on the two makes it feel like they are the only people that matter and that’s not how reality works. Take Harry Potter; the world feels huge because there are so many characters inhabiting it and living their lives outside of the main plot. That’s one of the reasons it comes alive so well.

Day and June are, however, interesting people in their own right. June is the only one with a perfect score on The Trial, which not only gives her responsibility and expectations, but isolates her from her peers. We get a sense of her intellect in the text, for example in this scene where June and Day meet for the first time (without showing their faces):

“Do you have money?” [asks June]

“Twelve hundred Notes.”

(Notes, not Republic gold. He robs from the upper class but doesn’t have the ability to rob the extremely wealthy. He’s probably a one-man operation.) P. 77.

Her ability to gather information from specific words, facial expressions, and even clothing make her entries full of detailed observations, giving her life on the page.

Day is, however, my favourite character. Though it is true that both of them are ridiculously over-kill (they can climb buildings, have perfect aim, hack technology, and have the highest intelligence in the country), I have a soft spot for singled-out characters.

They are both Mary-Sues (characters shaped according to wishful thinking), but I believe they are interesting enough to see past the faults. Day was born in the slums and is, quite frankly, a futuristic version of Robin Hood.

The republic has no idea what I look like. They don’t seem to know much of anything except that I’m young and that when they run my fingerprints they don’t find a match in their databases. That’s why they hate me, why I’m not the most dangerous criminal in the country, but the most wanted. I make them look bad. P. 2.

And I love it.

When June is sent to capture him, without anyone knowing what he looks like, the potential was so great I could barely contain myself. They would meet and develop a friendship, putting everything both of them stood for upside down – but how would Lu go about it?

Well, I was actually a little disappointed, maybe because it had so much potential. I won’t spoil it too much, but they spend three days together. Nothing really happens except they talk a lot and – baboom – they kiss. The rest of the book takes a 180-turn into something much less exciting than the first half.

There was so much potential, and while Lu’s version makes perfect sense (except for the quick romance) I was hoping for so much more. They could have adventures, form a real bond (not the three-day crap), and end up having to deal with an even greater dilemma when it comes to doing what they set out to do in the first place.

I wish she could cut the second half and develop the first.

But hey, I still read it twice.

So why is that? How come these faults don’t make me chuck the book in the bin and set it on fire? It is a good book. The suspense keeps you turning the pages; because the narrative shifts between them, and obviously because of the very telling blurb, we know what is going to happen before the characters do. Yet Lu manages to keep the excitement alive. Anyone who tells you exactly what is going to happen and still manages to keep you wondering ‘What is going to happen?’ is pretty darn skilled!

Day and June have distinct personalities that I enjoyed seeing battling it out, not only against each other but against the world and its prejudices against them. In that regard, they felt real. They had concerns. They had people they loved and people they hated. They had interests, they made mistakes – they felt like real people. I will enjoy seeing them portrayed if the film is ever made.

To sum it up, Legend has a lot going for it. It’s well-plotted in that it gives surprising twists when we need them. It gives us likable characters and an amazing emotional arc. The premise holds a lot of potential, but in a perfect world it could have been executed better. The writing draws you in, like the explosions of an action flick, and if you have six uninterrupted hours to kill I’d be more than happy to recommend it. Amazingly, I couldn’t put it down.

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