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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About lifeofsabina

Sabina has written several novels, but lacks the confidence to query them. A native Swede, she moved to the UK in 2011 for university. She shares her life with her fiancé and clingy Ragdolls.
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