There are so many good things about the new young-adult trilogy opener Half Bad that to harp on the bad would feel churlish. Yet as Half Bad moves toward its breathless climax, it feels even more incomplete than similar first chapters usually do. The book is Sally Green’s debut novel, and these closing passages are plagued by the sorts of mistakes first-time novelists often make, then smooth out in subsequent books. And if these missteps are present throughout the novel, then they become particularly galling in the closing section, when the plot should achieve liftoff and is, instead, held back by its clunky style.
Green’s foremost sin is that of telling, rather than showing. She couches much of this in dialogue, so it’s not as noticeable until characters pause in the midst of a build-up to one final battle so they can talk at length about the emotions of other characters or what the battle plan will be. But it’s rare for a novel to come up with a compelling visual or character action that would display the central truth of a situation, when it, instead, could just have someone come out and tell the reader what’s going on. It’s a shame, too, because Green is terrific at characterization and plotting, ably sketching in more than a dozen major and minor characters in a matter of paragraphs (and making their deaths matter) while keeping the story moving so beautifully that the pages evaporate.
Set in a modern England where a centuries-old conflict between White and Black Witches carries on right underneath the noses of “Fains” (normal humans), Half Bad features the story of young Nathan, the only child of a union between White and Black Witches in the whole world. (The secret of just how Nathan’s mother and father came together is one of the few things Green never over-explains, to the book’s benefit.) His White Witch mother having died under mysterious circumstances and his Black Witch father having disappeared because the White Witch Council wants him dead, Nathan is raised by his grandmother amid the jeers of hatred and prejudice from the White Witches who surround him, including his own half-sister. But there’s a very good reason the White Witches have yet to kill Nathan, when they have no problem killing other supposed enemies of the Council. It has to do with his long-missing father, who just might be lured out into the open with Nathan’s help—or so both he and his grandmother assume.
Green sets herself a huge task in writing from Nathan’s point of view. That she mostly meets it is remarkable for a first-time novelist. Nathan can barely read and write, and his vocabulary is necessarily limited by this. He deals much better in pictures and maps, but when it comes time to relate his story to the audience, he’s confined not just to his own perspective but to mostly simple words and phrases. The book isn’t written in any sort of dialect or misspelled English, as in the case of, say, Riddley Walker, but it feels confined all the same. Green turns this into the book’s greatest strength, as it’s always clear both what’s going on around Nathan and in his head as the story proceeds. Doubly impressive is that she’s able to fill in pertinent details of all of the characters he meets on his journey, from his half-brother and half-sisters to the woman employed by the Council to keep him locked in a cage so he can’t escape until its plan for him unfolds.
In some ways, Half Bad, which covers events from when Nathan is a young boy to his 17th birthday, can be a little too breathless. After the Council’s plans become apparent, the book moves so quickly that it can feel almost like a travelogue through its world of witches. Though the characters are always strongly drawn, readers will likely want to spend more time with many of them, and when Green sets up her own (creative) spin on the inevitable love triangle, it feels less like an inevitability and more like something she dropped into the book’s final quarter to give everything even higher stakes. It’s in these portions when the book is rushing through Nathan’s encounters on his way to his hugely important 17th birthday that it most indulges in too much telling, and that can stand between readers building lasting bonds with the characters.
No matter, though, because when it’s working—as it is for most of its 394 pages—Half Bad is both gripping and surprisingly sophisticated in its consideration of how easy it is to turn any group into an all-purpose enemy that stands in for all the evils of the world. Green knows her readers will be well aware of the old trope of having the supposed good guys be just as bad as the bad guys, but she’s also comfortable with having everyone do things that seem incredibly evil while still having completely defensible reasons for doing so, even Nathan. Much of Half Bad is so confident that it makes the places where Green’s first-timer status are most evident feel all the more frustrating. Here’s to book two.