Half Bad turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. I hadn’t heard of it until the very day it came out, when ads suddenly innondated Goodreads. I gave it a shot and downloaded a Kindle sample, which it failed horrifically. But I had a feeling I should give it a second chance and I was very glad I did.
It’s the story of a young boy called Nathan who is a Half-Code, meaning half White Witch (Good) and half Black Witch (Evil). It’s the story of how he grows up under constant demonisation by the council and his peers, even some of his own family, until one day he is sent away and tortured after finally learning some truths about his heritage and his supposed destiny.
Without meaning to, I devoured this in a day. It was incredibly morish, even though the first half of the book is mainly backstory without a heck of a lot going for it in terms of plot, it was still so bloody interesting and intriguing. I am impressed that Sally Green actually managed to entertain me with a long backstory, because I am usually bored to tears by that kind of thing. More interesting still, I didn’t even like the main character and I still wanted to know more of his story. What?!
I should probably make this clear, if you’re looking for a character-driven story, this is probably not for you. Nathan is completely ineffectual in his own story and bloody hell his inconsistent characterisation drove me up the wall.
We actually start the book from his perspective, and by that I mean second person narrative, present tense.
No. Just no.
I hate that shit. That was what made me mark the book as a failed kindle sample at first because the narrative was simply awful. I hate it when authors make senseless stylistic choices like that, like when they deliberately misspell things throughout the entire novel because it’s a dystopia where people can’t write very well. I can’t get past shit like that, it just removes my head from the story. Same with the second person narrative. What, is it supposed to make me connect more with the protagonist because it reads like I’m taking the place of a fifteen-year-old boy called Nathan? Well it doesn’t work, Sally Green, because I am not a fifteen-year-old boy called Nathan and I don’t like reading about him as if I’m supposed to be him.
Luckily after a few pages the narrative switches to first person (which is the only reason I picked the book back up), except for one single page much later on in the story, I don’t know, just to remind us of the shit that was pulled in the prologue.
Despite Sally Green’s “best attempts”, I found it impossible to connect with Nathan. I was hoping he’d improve as the story progressed, but no. He gets slightly more sarcastic at one point, but that is all. Let’s list the characterisation crimes, shall we?
1) The kid has zero personality. All we know about him is that he likes drawing and he’s considered to be thick because he can’t really read and write. I was hoping that it would be discovered that he’s dyslexic, therefore adding depth to the “demonisation” and “being labelled as stupid” issue that Green must have been trying to portray. But it’s never revealed to be dyslexia, and from the look of it, it’s way worse than that. Nathan is stupid in other ways too, like with the ridiculous father-fantasy he clings on to.
To summarize: his dad is the most evil black witch in the world, who has murdered countless people, eaten their hearts, caused his mother to commit suicide, and worst of all, didn’t make it to his birthday party. Or any birthday party really; Nathan’s never seen his dad. Despite all of this, he has this crazy little fantasy that his evil, murderous father is completely misunderstood, actually wants to be with his son but just can’t right now, and if he just wishes hard enough he’ll come and rescue Nathan from his miserable life.
Children whose dads have abandoned them for a life of murder sprees do not think like that. Sure, they can wish their dad was a better person, but they probably don’t convince themselves that he is. They can be angry as hell for their dad’s behaviour, they’re not going to tell everyone he’s misunderstood and stand up for the bloke! But Nathan doesn’t ever show any sign of resentment towards his father. Which brings me to the next point:
2) Nathan is an emotionless freak. I’m not joking, we do not get any insights into what he feels for a looooooong time (and I’ll get to that). Given that I have just read the Shatter Me series by Tahareh Mafi, which was a pretty flawless representation of a how a character feels after being demonised for a lifetime, I was hoping to see a little bit of the same thing. I wasn’t expecting the kind of perfection I saw in Tahareh Mafi’s work, but I thought I’d get something. No way in hell did I expect to be greeted with a fat jar of fucking nothing. You may argue that this adds substance to Nathan’s character, seeing as he’s completely thick and this inevitably affects his ability to portray emotion and a humanesque personality, which is what Sally Green must have been trying to achieve. To which I say I do not understand why anyone would write a character like that, and oh no it fucking doesn’t – here’s why.
3) Nathan is ridiculously inconsistent. He’s supposed to be stupid, but the author sure isnt’ and she actually writes quite well. But since the story’s told from Nathan’s POV, it’s difficult to tell where his intelligence level is. The writing completely negates Nathan’s only personality trait: that he’s thick. It puts the whole damn thing under scrutiny.
He also is completely emotionless until about two thirds of the way in, where he starts feeling random bursts of anger every two weeks or so. Seriously, it just reads like Sally Green suddenly remembered to add emotions and just threw a couple of anger outburst in at the last minute. He feels nothing more than that. And it’s completely ridiculous.
My personal favourite inconsistency is Nathan’s alternating scale of pain. He becomes a proper hench macho man at one point. A guy who can run circuits with broken ribs, who can survive a Scottish winter, outside, without so much as an “am I bothered?”. A guy who can stick a rusty nail in his own mouth without even thinking about it.
“I go t the back of the cage and find my nail in the soil. I put it in my mouth, digging it into my cheek and healing it over.”
And then, later on, suddenly he starts feeling pain over these same little things that previously didn’t even warrant a mention. I say again, it reads like Sally Green forgot that her character should probably express some pain, so added it in later and didn’t even go back to fix the mistakes she made in the first place.
I am well aware that I have been ranting for ages about how shit Nathan’s character is, yet I gave this book four stars.
Well, that’s because Nathan was really the only shit part of this book. That and the random second person narrative which was so pointless and irritating I could have screamed.
The rest of Half Bad wasn’t half bad (terrible pun totally intended).
The story was interesting, fast-paced and plot-driven. It’s a mid-fantasy with incredible realism which just envelopped me in the world and made it impossible for me to put the book down. The socio-political aspects were clever and I hope they get more detailed as the series progresses, along with the magic system – I want more of that shit, but hopefully without the book losing its fabulous realism.
Sally Green really has got the intrigue aspect down, and kept me guessing throughout the entire thing. Not once did I anticipate what was going to happen, and I love that in a book. Even though I don’t believe in original ideas, I kept throwing the word original around in my head while reading this. There may be aspects to it that have been done before, but Green’s angle was new and sharp, and it certainly felt fresh and, yes, original.
If she had just written a semi-decent main character, we could have been best buds.