Half Bad begins with teenage protagonist Nathan in a cage, imprisoned by a punishing and severe white witch. At first we’ve no idea how long he’s been trapped there, or why, but learn of his two coping strategies. The first his mantra—“the trick is not to mind”—not to mind the pain or the captivity or anything. The second is his relentless good sense of humour.
“The diet you’re on is great. You have to give her some credit, cos you are super healthy, super fit. Meat, veg, more meat, more veg, and don’t forget plenty of fresh air. Oh this is the life.”
Nathan gives us in-depth glimpses into his past, where we discover he grew up a Half Code in a white witch society—his white witch mother died soon after his birth, and his father, who Nathan has never met, is the most feared and notorious living black witch. Half Bad is set in modern day, where witches blend in, have jobs and attend school, and ‘fains’ (non-witches) are completely unaware of their existence.
Split between two types of witches that actively hunt and kill each other, Nathan’s had an extremely tough upbringing. He wasn’t accepted by anyone in the white witch community except for members of his immediate family, and suffered strong discrimination and bullying.
Half Bad is the first book I have read that contains magic—which is something I’ve always avoided as I simply don’t find it appealing—but this story isn’t your average magical tale. With no wands in sight and the words ‘abra-cadabra’ certainly never spoken, Nathan’s story is brimming with realistic and gritty scenes, awe inspiring characters, injustice, prejudice and violence.
Every single character Nathan encounters is well rounded, relatable and necessary, with three relationships in particular shining from the pages.
The first is with Celia, the strict white witch who keeps Nathan imprisoned in the cage. He starts off longing to kill her at any given opportunity in order to escape, but Celia’s rough exterior slowly wears away to reveal a captivating and somewhat protective teacher/pupil relationship.
Another great character is Nathan’s half-brother, Arran, who Nathan is extremely close to. They have a caring and loving male relationship which I believe is something to be praised and cherished, because of its rarity in not only young adult fiction, but in reality. It’s OK for brothers to openly show affection for each other without it making them any less manly, regardless of a few reviews of Half Bad I have read that state Nathan is clearly written as a girl due to his love for Arran.
Rebecca is one of the many antagonists of this story and is also Nathan’s half-sister. She blames him for the death of their mother, and since Nathan’s black witch father killed her white witch father, Rebecca absolutely despises him. Throughout his childhood she made Nathan’s life hell, telling him tales of how he was a disgustingly ugly baby that was kept in a draw, unwanted and unloved. She also tells him that on the day of his birth they only received one card, and inside the words read ‘Kill it.’
The perspective this book is written in, for me, makes it very unique. The memories of Nathan’s upbringing and his family, his attempt at attending a public school and his experiences with his love interest Annalise, are all in first-person. However, when in the present of his cage imprisonment, the perspective switches to something I rarely encounter: second-person. This is where the character isn’t referred to as ‘I’ or ‘they’ but as ‘you.’ The story is directly telling you, the reader, what you are doing, feeling, and experiencing as the character themselves.
“Your hand is resting on the table and it’s so swollen now that the fingers can’t move at all.”
At first this unfamiliar perspective threw me and I presumed I would find it jarring, but I soon stopped noticing it, even enjoyed it, and got enveloped in the excitement of the story.
Young adult readers could easily sympathise and perhaps relate to Nathan—his broken home, missing parents, his day dreams of a loving father coming to rescue him, the extreme sibling rivalry, the prejudice he experiences because he isn’t the same as everyone else, and his feelings of being an outsider.
Half Bad is an interesting and engrossing read that both male and female young adult readers can enjoy. It’s edgy, with its chopping starting chapters, its combination of past and present tenses, and of course, that powerful mix of perspectives, with the second person telling of his cage experience making Nathan’s pain and torture really hit home. If you enjoy young adult fiction but are avoiding Half Bad due to its magical connotations, then please don’t. Give this book a read, because I’m sure you will quickly find yourself hooked.
© 2017 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.