A stunning, magical debut. An international sensation. 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.
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Half Bad is brutal and spares no punches as we are introduced to the main character, who lives in a cage. A cage. Immediately my interest was piqued. I knew this was a good sign for me because I'm the kind of reader that struggles with most book beginnings. However, the perils that Nathan endures really horrified me, and as terrible as it sounds, I couldn't stop reading about it. There's nothing bright and sunny about Half Bad and the majority of it involves Nathan being ridiculed or tortured from a very young age because his father is the most hunted black witch. And so Nathan grows up alone in the community of white witches who despise him. He desperately wants to be accepted and not judged purely on his parentage, but no matter how hard he tries, the Council of White Witches continue to send restrictions:
-Any contact Nathan has with a white witch has to be reported
-He goes to the council for yearly assessments, where he is questioned about the father he's never met
-He can't have his Giving Ceremony with out permission (Think: Rite of Passage for Witches)
-He can't travel anywhere without first having permission
It gets pretty ridiculous with the amount of rules place on a child, but the Council has their prejudices, and it's clear they don't plan to let up. Nathan, who's only freedom included traveling to Wales every once in a while, refuses to ask permission for travel. Yet, his half-brother (a white witch), who genuinely cares about him, begs him to reconsider. That scene was one of the saddest in the book for me.
"Later that night, when I am getting undressed, Arran has a go at talking to me. I guess Gran has asked him to try. He says I should "rethink," "perhaps ask permission to go to one place in Wales," and some other stuff like that. Adult stuff. Gran's stuff.
I just say, "Can I have permission to go to the bathroom? Please?"
He doesn't reply, so I throw my jeans on the floor, get on my knees and say, "Can I have permission to go to the bathroom? Please?"
He doesn't reply but drops to his knees with me and hugs me. We stay like that. Him hugging me and me still stiff with anger at him, wanting to hurt him too.
After a long time I hug him back, just a little."
But somehow in all the abuse, Nathan finds a little happiness in a girl named Annalise. Their romance was both short and sweet, and inevitably would fail since it's forbidden for white witches to fraternize with black witches. (I want to take the time to point out that this is NOT a Paranormal Romance.) Sometime later, he ends up living in a cage outside.
The writing, as I mentioned before, flips back and forth from second to first person in the beginning, but tapers off and settles on first person present tense. I personally loved it because it's so different from other books. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a novel with second person that wasn't a Choose Your Own Adventure. I felt like I could really get into Nathan's mind and understand how he felt. It also made certain scenes more intense because it forces the reader to imagine themselves in his situation. So imagining my hand being burned off from acid wasn't fun, but different.
Kat (my co-blogger) and I happened to be reading this book at the same time and had similar thoughts about it being difficult to read at first. It was very depressing in the beginning to see a child being mistreated and tortured. I don't often encounter that in most of the YA novels that I've read. But it does remind me of the same feelings I felt while reading The Hunger Games in that respect. The scenes don't fade into black, Nathan screams throughout some of them and they just felt very visual and hard to process at times. I'm not a reader of horror novels nor a watcher of scary movies that have a lot of violence, so my tolerance level for this might be low. However, I do think those scenes are where Green truly shined. Plus, they'll make for a great movie.
When I went through and read a few reviews, some mentioned the implications of race since Nathan is a black witch being persecuted by white witches. It's interesting because I never really thought about it that way. Looking back, I suppose it is there. The black witches and white witches are different races in a way, but I viewed it more playing on the long accepted mythology that black witches were evil and white witches good and simply putting another spin on it. In any case, I wasn't offended by anything intentional or unintentional.
Strangely enough, even though Half Bad is about witches, there's not much magic in it. There are a few instances where there are spells mentioned and used, but the vast majority boils down to witches making potions. There are no wands or cloaks or three-quarter platforms. I think this was smart, otherwise, would we see a lot of comparisons between Half Bad and Harry Potter floating around. As far as I can tell, they don't have anything in common besides the same paranormal creature.
As much as I loved the narrative and premise, I do agree with other reviewers that mention the second half isn't as strong as the first. This might have something to do with how violent the first half is, and therefore, a lot more engaging to read. I don't know if that's the right word, but the first half is definitely more interesting. However, I still enjoyed the second half because if the book had been filled entirely of violent torture, I don't think I could have continued reading. The second half mostly involves Nathan, newly escaped from the Council, searching for a black witch named Mercury who can give him his three gifts on his 17th birthday.
The ending took me by surprise due to the reappearance from a certain character. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I am eager to continue this series. Do I think it's the Next Big Thing? Who knows. But it's a darn good book.