Half Bad by Sally Green is a dark and evocative take on the YA hidden magical world genre.
I should note up front that I picked this book (the first of a trilogy) at random off a list of Gay YA, so that informs my reading and my review, although to my uninformed understanding, the queer content is developed more later in the series.
Witches hide themselves among normal people—or fains, as they call them—but have a very real, very dangerous, very regulated society. There are White Witches and there are Black Witches, and these aren’t in terms of how they choose to use their magic but is genetic, and informs the sort of gifts they have available to them. Nathan, the protagonist, is a child at the time this story starts—and is half-Black, half-White, the son of the worst Black Witch, Marcus. Hated, tortured, and being kept and trained in the hopes he’ll lure in and/or kill his father, Nathan has little love for the society of White Witches, but he’s left with little choice but complying with them. For one thing, they keep him in a cage. For another, if he isn’t able to get three gifts and a drink of blood on his seventeenth birthday, he’ll die.
The writing style in Half Bad is incredible. I was uncertain, at first, when I was dropped right into a second person POV, but the use of second person is limited, and the connotations of it, of Nathan telling things to himself because he is lonely (and alone) and needs to remind himself to focus on who he is in the midst of what he’s going through… it blew me away. I was glad that the main book was first person instead, though, and the writing was beautiful there too. Strong, evocative text.
This book may be hard to read if you can’t stomach dark scenarios. Nathan is beaten, emotionally and physically abused, and some scenes in the book are certainly tantamount to torture; Nathan has self-healing magic and advantage is taken of this. But the writing itself doesn’t turn it into “agony porn”, imho; there’s no sense of delighting in it so much as just presenting it. And although the book’s dark, and Nathan’s anger and distress and longing to be loved is transparent on each page, it feels hopeful as well. There are people who love him, and he is trying to seize his chances, and he does feel like the moments of happiness are worth living for.
If I had to pick something to be critical about, it’d be that we as the readers are sympathetic to Nathan and we know what he’s gone through, so his explosions of anger are easy for us to dismiss. It’s hard to see sometimes what other people like Gabriel or Annalise see in him, based only on their onscreen interactions. Since it’s so thoroughly in Nathan’s POV, I’m willing to buy the assertion that (for example) Gabriel loves him, but their interactions haven’t yet shown us what in Nathan he does love; Gabriel is an enigma. On the other hand, with two more books (and several ebook short stories) to go, that may well be answered in the future.
And probably that means it’ll be answered for me quite shortly—I went out and bought Half Wild right after I finished reading Half Bad!