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For the Council, the world is definitely black and white. White witches are good, lawful and to be protected. Black witches are bad, wild and to be hunted down and brought to justice. Fains, non-witch humans, are essentially irrelevant, although there are many witches who are half fain, half white witch. And then there’s Nathan.
Born of a black witch father and a white witch mother, Nathan is a half-code and the only one of his kind. According to the Council, he is a dangerous anomaly and must be closely monitored to see which of his halves will win out. As he approaches his seventeenth birthday, when he will come of age and discover his “gift”, the Council interferes more and more in his life, until he winds up literally caged, which is where we meet him in the opening chapter of the book.
It soon becomes clear, however, that what the Council wants more than anything is to use Nathan as bait to catch his father, Marcus, a notorious and wanted black witch. However, while the Council might see the world in black and white, it is pretty clear that the self-proclaimed “good” white witches are often as bad as their “bad” black witch foes, and the distinction between killing for “good” and killing for “evil” is very tenuous.
Initially it seemed like this book was going to be an allegory about race in the vein of Mallory Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series. White versus black, discrimination and persecution based on colour are all quite obvious themes in Half Bad, but as the story developed I got less of a sense that “race” was what it was all about. Instead I got the sense that this was more a comment on authority and the dangers of self-proclaimed righteousness – a sort of teenage-fantasy version of Orwell’s 1984.
Being based around witches, Harry Potter comparisons are likely inevitable, but Nathan’s world is certainly no Hogwarts. Darker, and with more adult themes, Half Bad is more likely to appeal to Hunger Games fans.
I enjoyed the structure of the book, which played with time and point of view to good effect. It opens in the little-used second person narrative, which works well to both unsettle and drawn in the reader, but switches back to the more familiar first person a couple of chapters in.
Half Bad is the first of a series and while it is not startlingly new or original it is well-written with interesting, well-developed characters and thought-provoking story line. Fans of young adult fantasy will certainly find a worthy new writer in Sally Green.
Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson
by Sally Green
Published by Penguin Books Ltd