by Sally Green
Original Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Length: 416 pages
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Source: ARC received from On the Same Page ARC Tours
Format Read In: Advanced Reader’s Copy
View from the Traffic Light:
Half Bad by Sally Green is a breathtaking debut novel about one boy’s struggle for survival in a hidden society of witches.
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.
Half Bad is a strange book, and while I generally enjoy bizarre stories and experimental formats, I don’t think it worked for this story. In fact, I would say most of Half Bad is dull. More than half dull, in fact. Here’s a plot summary:
Weird two chapters of 2nd person that start in media res → Nathan’s young life→ evaluations by mean white witches → torture → Nathan is taken away and more torture→ Nathan wanders→ Nathan finally finds a plot point → The one interesting thing happens → The end.
Half Bad tries to be a character-driven tale with magic and prejudice as a backdrop, but it doesn’t quite work in that respect either as all the empathizing characterization(except for maybe all the torture) takes place quite late in the book. The opening of this book takes place in second person, and I have no idea why(I found it quite frustrating). I’m not normally a fan of the second person, but I think it can have it’s place. Half Bad is not that place. It opens in second person in the middle of the story, but only for the first two chapters, less than ten pages in total, before going back to the actual beginning of Nathan’s story. It’s ambitious, I suppose, but I don’t see how this opening served any narrative function, and it did not invite me in the story in the best head space.
Also, let’s address the elephant in the room: the black/white witch thing was highly uncomfortable and had definite racist overtones. The summary proposes that the white witches are “good” and the black witches are “bad”, but I had hoped the narrative would have treated this better than it did. While it becomes quite obvious that not all white witches are good, by the end everyone seems to be mostly bad. Half Bad seems to want to suggest that people can not be completely “good” or “bad”, but it doesn’t really give it the treatment I would hope. There’s more bad in everyone in Half Bad than just half, and the story never really sets about to deconstruct the racist overtones, which raised a big problem for me.
Half Bad is an incredibly slow moving story. It picks up pace towards the end, but the first half was filled with inconsequential details and description that didn’t lead anywhere. These words didn’t contribute to the setting–indeed, I was surprised by the lack of atmosphere in the book. I know better than to really believe blurbs, but the originally blurb for this book pitched it for fans of “Markus Zusak and Patrick Ness”, and foolishly, I paid attention because while both authors are fairly well-known, they’re not always the go-to names when it comes to the “For fans of” parts. Both of those writers I love precisely for their ability to create a setting and an atmosphere in just a few words, so I expected much, much more from Half Bad. So much of Half Bad seems to take place in a void–it deals with witches, but there’s not too much witchcraft going on towards the end, and it’s set in the modern day UK, but again, nothing is really set until halfway through the book.
As you can see from my simplified plot summary above, not much happens in Half Bad. I’m convinced this book could have been half as long as it was, because so much of it was just Nathan wandering aimlessly. Nathan being tortured. Nathan thinking. Pages and pages of Nathan thinking, many of which could have been cut without a loss. I will say that this does help establish his character, at least at first, so I can see why some of it was necessary, but definitely not to the lengths it went.
In the end, Half Bad just wasn’t half good for me. Maybe a quarter. It had promise and there were certainly glimpses of a great story peaking through here and there, but I should never be so bored when reading about witches and revenge.
A slow start gave way to a slow middle that eventually led to a not-quite-as-slow end. Once things finally started happening it became a more compelling story, but there were just so many things I had issues with in Half Bad up to that point. I can’t say I really enjoyed this one, despite loving the premise. 2/5 cupcakes.