Series: Half Life #1
Published by Viking on March 4, 2014
Genres: fantasy, paranormal
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In modern-day England, witches live alongside humans: White witches, who are good; Black witches, who are evil; and fifteen-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 sixteenth 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.
Well, I guess I can be excited because Half Bad taught me something new: I’m not a fan of second person present tense narration. The first 20 pages are written as such and I found myself incredibly distanced. I had to quickly skim ahead a bit to check that this did not continue throughout and, whew! Bullet dodged! We switch to first person present but, sadly, I didn’t find that much better. There is a lot of “I do this. Nothing happens. I feel this. Character appears. She performs action. I perform action.” No, literally. Just substitute in the sparse verbs and adjectives and that is how it reads. The writing style is very choppy and disjointed and only further served the distancing I initially felt.
Also, I think that you should be aware that the first 40% of this book is flashback filling in on Nathan’s backstory leading up to how exactly he ends up in that cage. I actually did find that portion interesting. My attention was engaged with the details of Nathan’s sad childhood. Seeing the ways in which an innocent child is judged and punished for things beyond his control serves its purpose in making the reader sympathize and cheer on the MC.
Unfortunately, once we get to the present, everything just starts to drag out. The pacing really slows down. One of my biggest complaints with this book is that so little happens over a long stretch of time. All of the interest happens before the events of the synopsis! That is not good. The latter 60% is just drawn out and full of repetitive angst on Nathan’s part. There’s a good portion where he’s just sitting around an apartment waiting for clearance to move on to the next part of the plot. He spends his time being angry and, like I’ll mention below, beating up his friend. Ooooooookay.
In my ARC copy, the climax begins on page 376. The book ends on page 386. That’s how off the pacing is for this story. It probably also has the distinction of being one of the most anti-climatic climaxes ever. I found myself just sat there, so bored, saying, “Really?” It then dumps you off in a cliffhanger ending right in the middle of the action. Eurgh, no.
Now, Nathan. This is a kid who’s not had an easy time of it by any means. It’s so easy to sympathize with him. With his father MIA and his mother long dead, he’s raised in a White Witch household led by his grandmother alongside three half siblings. All of his family members love him,with the notorious exception of his sister Jessica. Jessica regularly abuses Nathan both verbally and physically from a very young age. I can’t help but think that this book would absolutely be triggering to child abuse survivors, so there is my official warning. It really is disturbing and heartrending to read of the abuse Nathan endures from childhood to adolescence. Anyone with a beating heart would root for him to rise above his tormentors and ultimately triumph.
And I do. I really do. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to care about Nathan himself. I partially blame the disjointed writing style mentioned above as I think it prevented me from connecting with him. He’s much more relatable in the initial backstory portion of the book. When we switch to the present, however, Nathan basically becomes a huge ball of impotent rage. There is a lot of angst and anger and, while understandable, it is not presented in a way that makes you care or even want to care.
Nathan is also consistently “sure of” many things for which he really has no good reason to be. He is sure that his father really loves him despite abandoning him for 17 years. He is sure that he will die unless he receives the three Gifts of the traditional witch coming of age ceremony. He has no evidence upon which to base such absolute certainty, and yet he does. This just comes across as foolhardy to me and does not serve to endear him.
Especially in the latter portion of the book, Nathan becomes increasingly unhinged. He lashes out violently against one of his only allies, strangling and head bashing a friend over a relatively harmless deception. That’s not a hero (or even an anti hero, given how this book purports to be about the complexity of blurring good and bad) I can get behind. These are maturity issues which, perhaps, will be addressed in later volumes, but I’m already too uninterested to stick around and see.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the “love interest.” Not only is Annalise bland and uninteresting, she has no agency. Annalise spends her time in this story being bossed around and manipulated by her brothers and getting attacked by others. That’s it. She does not exist as her own person. Just a collection of harmful tropes. She is dangerously close to being an actual damsel in distress. It’s insulting. Especially because it is deliberately mentioned that female witches have stronger Gifts than males. Really? Nothing to show for it there.
I don’t know about you, but my enjoyment of a book will generally come down to how much it made my heart pang, or wrench, or break. Those are the experiences I am ultimately looking for in my reading, always. The most feeling I actually had from this entire book was from Nathan’s brother, Arran. Portrayed as a genuinely sweet boy, he is protective, caring, and loyal to Nathan through the very end. I had, perhaps, a mini pang when Nathan and Arran had this sweet exchange:
I sit on my bed and ask, “Do you get a lot of stick for being my half-brother?”
“I’m your brother.” And he gives me that look of his, the most gentle person in the world look.
And that was it for me in terms of feels.
The world building is also sorely lacking. It’s a world of White (good) Witches and Black (bad) Witches, yet all signs point to both being sort of terrible. There is an attempt at myth-telling to explain the differences between Black and White, but it was clumsily executed and hard to follow. It really didn’t make anything clearer in any way.
At one point, Nathan’s brother Arran gives a Harry Potter-esque speech about how it isn’t what Nathan is, but how he chooses to use his Gift that will make him good or bad. Okay, but is that not then true of all witches? Why are White Witches who are obviously doing bad things still regarded as good? I don’t think we ever see an example of a Black Witch behaving particularly decently so I can’t ask the question.
I have to confess, I really don’t understand what this book was going after with this supposed “racial allegory.” Honestly, it made me really uncomfortable. I felt like the author (a white woman) had this half baked idea about how she would create this super gray, complex world full of nuanced characters to tell us that Racism Is Bad. Yet, all of the Black Witches are actually evil and our Half Black main character isn’t a peach himself. Are you cringing just from that sentence? I am. The only characters who we see both good and bad sides of are White Witches. As an allegory, I found it ineffective, and frankly, insulting.
The premise had so much potential, but the disconnected style, lack of effective world building, dragged out plot, weak characters, and clumsy messaging left much to be desired.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review. All quotes from an uncorrected advance proof.
Did you love this book? Do you want to tell me how wrong I am? Please feel free. I am always looking to learn from differing opinions!