Witches and magic are popular motifs in fiction, rivaled only by the recently revived penchant for vampires. It’s seemingly impossible to review a book about witches without mentioning the “Harry Potter” juggernaut, which has defined the witch/wizard genre for almost two decades. Yet witches are also the basis of more recent fictional endeavors, including the YA fantasy “Caster Chronicles” series, the 2013 mini-series “American Horror Story: Coven”, and the “All Souls” trilogy. The rich mythological basis for witches means that “Harry Potter” does not have a creative monopoly on this sub-group of fiction, and there’s plenty more material still to be mined from the backlog of witch folklore. Indeed Sally Green’s “Half Bad”, which revolves around witches living in modern England, doesn’t feel like a mere rehashing of the fiction that’s come before it. While its concept isn’t strikingly original (a primordial battle between “Black” and “White” Witches, and a protagonist who bridges the gap between the two sides), its innovation is derived from its brave decision not to shy away from the macabre. Children and teenagers have demonstrated innumerable times that they’re not afraid to handle some pretty dark stuff in their literature (just off the top of my head: children massacring each other in a televised gladiator-style contest). Even so, “Half Bad” is particularly gruesome and disturbing, its narrative encompassing scenes of physical torture, mutilation, murder, self-harm, and even cannibalism. In one exceptionally chilling scene the fourteen-year-old protagonist is held down while three White Witches (the supposed ‘good guys’) brutally carve “BW” (for ‘Black Witch’) into his back. The scene is described in the first person as Nathan drifts in and out of consciousness, the reader experiencing and sharing his pain. Nathan is also kept in a cage, viciously persecuted, and burnt with acid, all due to his identity as a Half Code (half White Witch and half Black Witch). “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” this is certainly not.
The premise of “Half Bad” itself is nightmare-inducing. An orphaned boy, Nathan, son of both the most evil Black Witch that’s ever existed and a White Witch (who died in mysterious circumstances), lives in fear that at any moment his Black Witch attributes might manifest and cause him to be executed by the ruthless Council and their cut-throat Hunters. Imagine Harry Potter is the son of Lord Voldemort and Lily, is chained up in the cupboard under the stairs, never gets that nice little letter from Hogwarts, and has to escape the Death Eaters all on his own. That’s the sort of predicament Nathan finds himself in. Yet the fact that the stakes are so high adds a certain realism to the fantasy novel. Despite Nathan’s magical healing ability, he constantly gets hurt. The danger is palpable and keeps the pace breathless.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of “Half Bad” is the moral ambiguity it explores. The White Witches and Black Witches are established as polar opposites – the former good and the latter bad. This antithetical set-up is common, seen most vividly in Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”, and to a lesser extent by the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix in “Harry Potter”. Yet in “Half Bad” both the good and bad witches are almost immediately revealed to be neither wholly good nor bad. There are no genuine villains and heroes in this book; the reader roots for Nathan, but at times Green throws things into the narrative that confuse even this basic line of thinking. Nathan occasionally acts in such a manner that the reader is forced to question whether he might indeed grow up to become evil after all. In some ways I hope Green goes down this bold route; to identify and sympathize with a young adult narrator, and to then witness their growth from persecuted child to cold-blood killer over the course of the trilogy would be pioneering. Pardon yet another Harry Potter comparison, but it would be like thinking you’re rooting for a Harry and watching him, aghast, evolve before your eyes into a Voldemort. The dichotomy between good and bad witches is also the basis of “Beautiful Creatures”, in which the protagonist’s magical powers will be claimed for either Light or Dark on her sixteenth birthday. Yet in “Half Bad”, this transformation isn’t just a matter of self-identification but a matter of life and death. In other points of interest, Nathan’s relationships with his half-brother, Arran, and the White Whet, Annalise, add further dimensions to his character. The obligatory YA love triangle is vaguely set in place by the novel’s conclusion, though with a refreshing new spin which I’d rather not spoil. I also enjoyed the fact that the protagonist was a male witch, in a move away from the traditional depiction of witches as female.
If you’re looking for something saccharine or easy to digest, don’t read “Half Bad”. It’s pretty unsettling. It’s also, however, totally absorbing. Green’s protagonist has barely begun his journey when the first part of the trilogy ends and we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of answers and revelations. Nathan is no Harry Potter. Something tells me he won’t be the sort of character that responds to Avada Kedavra (the killing curse) with Expelliarmus (the disarming charm). Something else tells me this series won’t end with the sentence “All was well”. The next book is due out in Spring 2015 so if you like your YA fiction dark and depressing you’ve got a whole year to get reading this one. No excuses.