Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Half Bad and Half Wild by Sally Green

Cover of Half Bad, featuring swirls of red liquid that form the silhouette of a boy's face against a grey background.
I finished Sally Green’s HALF BAD and said, “Wow. That was excellent. I’m gonna have to write about it right away.”

But my dears, I am not always the speediest at transcribing the thoughts that whirl through my head. Before I’d done so much as draft a rough outline, I’d also finished the sequel, HALF WILD, and the books were hopelessly tangled together in my mind.

Therefore, we shall discuss the two in a single space, trying to stay clear of spoilers but with, perhaps, the occasional implication. I don’t think anything I’m about to discuss will damage your reading experience, but I do say a fair bit about why Nathan and his world fascinate me, so proceed at your own risk.

I knew very little about these books before I downloaded the audio of HALF BAD from Scribd. I'd overheard an enthusiastic Twitter conversation or two, but I mostly took note because someone on my Instagram feed received swag. And I kind of suck at reading words from left to right (as we do in English, or so Jenny once informed me1), so I thought it was called BAD HALF for quite a while there. Oops.

Anyways, all I knew was there were witches, maybe, who probably existed in a contemporary setting. No one in my circle reached out to recommend it to me specifically, from which I deduce my particular bookish friends either haven’t read it yet, didn't like it, or didn't think I'd like it.

(It must be one of the first two, because how could you know me and not think I'd love this? I mean, really?)

I went in dark, and now I want to rush around informing everyone, from my particular bookish friends to random people on the street, that I am excited as all hell about these books and really think they should read them.


But I guess y'all need reasons, so let's start with some summary and move along to the meat of the thing.

Cover of Half Wild, featuring swirls of green liquid that form the silhouette of a howling wolf's head against a grey background.
Nathan spends his nights in a cage and his days locked into a grueling training regimen. It’s a shit situation for obvious reasons, but it’s bad for Nathan in particular because he’s a potential witch and his seventeenth birthday is coming up fast and he’ll lose his magic if his guardian doesn’t let him out in time for the ceremony that’ll awaken his Gift.

Small chance of that. Nathan is a half-code--son of a White Witch and the most feared Black Witch in Britain’s history--and a ward of the White Council, who see him as nothing more than a weapon against his powerful father. And they’re not about to let Nathan have his magic unless he swears to kill the man on their behalf.

Wow, y’all. My head is a great big mass of exclamation points whenever I think of these books. I'm that excited about them.

HALF BAD pulled me in right away; a rarity in my world. A big chunk of that is down to the narrator, Carl Prekopp, who sells Nathan’s morning push ups like his life actually depends on them, but the bulk of it is the story and the characters and the world. Sally Green got to me, friends. She made me feel things and think about these things as I felt them, and that’s exactly what I want all fiction to do.

The world, for all its intricacies, isn’t half so compelling as the characters, but I want to start with a few words on it anyways so’s to provide some necessary context for it all.

Besides, something half as interesting as Nathan is still pretty damned interesting.

HALF BAD takes place in contemporary Britain. Witches live alongside fains (nonmagic folk), but the bulk of the world doesn’t know they exist. It’s this element, perhaps, that has drawn the comparisons to J.K. Rowling2 you’ll see on certain bits of marketing copy, but the magic/nonmagic divide is pretty well the only similarity between Nathan’s world and Harry Potter’s.

Every witch has one particular Gift they can exploit, like an aptitude for potions (which are basically analogous with spells) or the ability to shapeshift into another person. Women’s Gifts are generally more powerful than men’s, though there are exceptions.

A witch can steal another’s gift if they kill them and eat their heart. This is frowned upon.

The Council governs all the White Witches of Britain and keeps the Black Witches in line--mostly by hunting them down and killing them. They also regulate people they deem undesirable but who have not actually broken the law yet, like Nathan.

White and Black are always gonna be loaded terms, but from what I can tell Green’s using them in the traditional magical sense without an intended racial component. (Unless I missed it. Audiobooks make it hard to go back and fact-check.) They aren’t necessarily shorthand for Good and Evil, either, no matter what anyone says. This whole world is grey, grey, grey.

At one point, a Council member tells Nathan that White Witches are easily distinguished from Black Witches because they use their powers to do good things. This is the exact opposite of what we see happening on the page. As far as the reader can tell, all the most powerful White Witches are fucking psychopaths. They ring Nathan around with bureaucratic hoops from pretty well the moment he’s born, aiming to set him apart from his peers, limit his personal freedoms, and ultimately grind him down into their image of him. After a decade and a half of this rigmarole, they ignore a vicious assault against him and lock him up in a cage for two years as part of their campaign against his father.

And yet, they still think there's a chance he'll go along with all their plans for him. I spent most of the book wishing I could punch something. Hard. Preferably one of the White Witches.

So the White Witches are psychopathic fuckwads, but the Black Witches we hear about aren’t necessarily great people either. Marcus, Nathan’s father, has a reputation for killing talented witches and eating their hearts so he can absorb their Gifts. (After several hours of listening to White Witch atrocities, I could almost sympathize with him on this. I mean, I don’t believe even psychopathic wankers deserve to have their hearts ripped out and eaten, but I can see why Marcus would decide that was the best way forward.) Black Witches on the whole have a reputation for matricide and patricide, too.

The setup is such, though, that we have to wonder how much of what we hear is sovereign truth. Most of what we know about Black Witches comes from decidedly unsympathetic White Witches; and even if these accounts are entirely fair, one questions whether Black Witches are predisposed to this sort of behavior or if they’ve been driven to it by systematic oppression and a keen propaganda engine.

Spend enough time telling someone they’re a certain way and maybe they’ll live up to your image of them.

Nathan struggles with this perception-versus-reality divide every day. He’s grown up surrounded by White Witches who have actively excluded him from their society because they expect his Black Witch blood will out. They hold him in official limbo but treat him as though he’s already been designated Black. Hell, the Council regulates him so severely that he’s not even allowed to be alone with a White Witch unless said White files paperwork informing them of the interaction--and this technically includes his own grandmother and siblings.

(I should add that his older siblings have a different father, whom Marcus killed nine months before Nathan was born. This is a chill-inducing setup for obvious reasons, so let me assure you there’s no rape involved. Everything between Nathan’s mother and Marcus was consensual.)

This persistent degradation has had a terrible effect on Nathan’s sense of self. He doesn’t want to be a bad person. He doesn’t want to kill anyone, or even hurt anyone, but nearly everyone around him believes he’s more than capable of committing atrocities. They’re determined to punish him for things he hasn’t even done yet, so his entire life is a high-threat situation and he sometimes snaps under the pressure of it all. Whenever this happens, he’s forced to question whether he really did want it, deep down. Maybe he does have a Black Witch’s violent instincts. Maybe he’s just as bad as the Council thinks he is.

The pressure mounts when it becomes clear he’s a physiological Black Witch, even if his soul is still undecided. His eyes don’t match those of his White siblings, and as he gets closer to his seventeenth birthday he feels the traditional Black call to sleep outdoors and embrace the night. He struggles with the idea that his body can force him into patterns of behavior that don’t fit with his self image.

For a while--ie, until the cage comes into it--he does manage to keep hold with help from his grandmother, his brother, and his youngest sister. (His eldest sister is Council material through and through.) He also tends to mythologize his father, inventing elaborate excuses for Marcus’s absence and his appetite for witch-hearts alike. Young Nathan is convinced his father can’t possibly be as bad as everyone says, and the reader knows a large part of this conviction lies in Nathan’s own desire to be good. If Marcus is actually decent despite what the Council says of him, maybe Nathan can be decent too.

These continual attempts to justify his life render Nathan a somewhat unreliable narrator. He wants things so desperately, and expends so much energy talking himself into certain interpretations of the truth, that the reader has to question whether she can actually trust everything he says. How much of Nathan’s account is true, and how much is what he wants to be true because he'll feel better about his crap life if he stares at it through this particular filter?

Then again, y’all know I’m a suspicious reader who never entirely trusts first person narrators because fiction is more fun if you wonder what they’re hiding from you. I’m not sure whether Green actually intends us to question Nathan’s account, beyond his speculation as to Marcus’s true nature, and as the first book wore on I grew far less inclined to do so. I felt for Nathan, and I became so involved with his inner life that I stopped interrogating the text with my usual vigor. I was quite happy to take his account if not at face value then certainly as the possibly biased story of a complex, interesting person who is simply trying to make sense of his own life.

When he glosses over something or ignores an obvious warning sign, it’s not because he’s trying to pull one over on the reader. He’s deceiving himself because that’s the only way he can cope.

I love Nathan a lot, and I want so many things on his behalf. He himself wants so much, and the text gives him so little space in which to carve his own life into something he can be happy with. He’s continually forced to act against his preferences. He never wants to kill anyone, least of all Marcus, but everyone who has power over him keeps pushing him into situations where he may have to do just that. He wants acceptance, but very few people outside his immediate family are willing to look past his parentage and consider who he really is. He wants to live someplace nice, someplace simultaneously calm and wild, but he can’t do the work he's forced to do if he shuts himself away like that.

And he’s so eager to trust people, even after everything he’s been through. He latches on to anyone who’s kind to him without demanding he do anything for them in return (though he does have enough sense to leave a buffer period between a first meeting and full-on trust mode). I spent the bulk of HALF WILD terrified this would backfire for him. I want ONLY GOOD THINGS for Nathan, but the story at hand isn't primed to let him have good things. The text practically forces the reader to imagine a future where Nathan is stripped of family and friends alike.

Betrayal is never impossible. Not with the sort of life he leads.


Now, in accordance with my Representation Isn’t A Spoiler policy, let’s talk about sexuality. Because this is one of the most exciting things about the whole series.

Early in HALF BAD, Nathan meets Annalise, a young, female White Witch with whom he connects despite her family’s wishes. They become friends and eventually develop feelings for one another. Annalise is Nathan’s rock when things get bad. He clings to the memory of her kindness throughout the worst moments of his life.

Somewhat later in the book, he meets a young3, male Black Witch named Gabriel (pronounced the French way; so, like Gabrielle). Things are initially strained between them because Nathan is understandably wary of new people, but they, too, become friends. And Gabriel develops feelings for Nathan. And Nathan doesn’t not have feelings for Gabriel.


The moment Gabriel’s feelings came out, I braced myself for another one of those stories where the queer person falls in love with their best friend, who cares about them, sure, but doesn’t feel the same because they’re Totes Hetero Thanks Very Much. Y’all know the drill. It’s a trope, and while I can confirm it’s realistic it’s not the sort of thing one wants to see as often as one does.

But the trope, she does not materialize. Nathan’s conflicted, yeah, but not because Gabriel is a guy. It’s because Gabriel isn’t Annalise, with whom Nathan has been in love since he was eleven years old. And if Gabriel isn’t Annalise, how can Nathan possibly have feelings for him?

Except he does. It’s obvious, and not just because he tells us (and Gabriel) straight out, or because of a certain super-hot kiss.

Nathan has chemistry with both parties. These are friendships as well as potential romances. He and his love interests talk. They connect in all sorts of emotional ways. They do things together beyond the usual romantic gambits, and they work through difficult stuff. It’s lovely.

What's more, neither the text nor anyone around Nathan treats the bisexual angle as peculiar in any way, shape, or form. Green doesn't present the divide between Annalise and Gabriel as a man versus woman thing, either. Instead, the conflict is between Nathan’s desire to be good, as represented by Annalise’s view of him, and his need to be accepted for who he truly is, as espoused by Gabriel’s embrace of even his less admirable qualities.

And damn me, but I’m rooting for Gabriel.

The acceptance angle can be a dangerous tack to take, yes, but I don’t feel like Gabriel’s saying he’ll excuse anything bad Nathan may do. He’s willing to listen, and to figure out what emotions lie at the root of Nathan’s behavior, and to forgive if forgiveness is necessary. He’s quite happy to work through anything and everything that may come up in whatever manner is most beneficial to Nathan. It’s about supporting, not enabling, and that's glorious.

Gabriel is also frank about how he feels without putting pressure on Nathan to choose him (except insofar as super-hot declarations of one's feelings bring a certain amount of pressure with them no matter what). He doesn't think Nathan should be with Annalise, but there's no, "You should be with me instead" behind it. It's genuine concern because Gabriel, too, has noticed Nathan tends to be too trusting.


Argh, friends. Argh. I try so hard not to ship things because shipping leaves me all giggly and illogical and inclined to accept stuff I shouldn't, but I just can’t help it. I want them together. I want it most ardently.

Um. Yes. Y’all need to read these books if you love awesome characters, complex morality, and bisexual love triangles. An interest in magic in the modern world won't hurt, either.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize it's not always an option for every reader. If you need another way to read HALF BAD and/or HALF WILD, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy either of the books through the Kobo, The Book Depository, Amazon, or Audible links above. I get an extra month of Scribd if you sign up for a two-month free trial.

  1. We went to the Harry Potter Experience in New York and I was like, "Why do they have the film posters up in reverse order?" And Jenny was like, "I think you'll find they're in the correct order if you read them from left to right, as we customarily do in English."

    She was right.

  2. Can we please stop calling every writer of magical books for young people “the next J.K. Rowling”? It’s become meaningless. Harry Potter is its own thing, its own great thing, and almost none of the books that draw comparisons to it have very much in common with that core text. And that’s okay. They can be great things in their own way. Not every contemporary fantasy has to match Harry Potter.
  3. A weird thing: I totally missed Nathan's original commentary about Gabriel's age, so I assumed he was, like, thirty-five. (When I don't know how old a character is, I automatically peg them as thirty-five or thereabouts. I wonder if this will change once I myself turn thirty-five?) It wasn't until the part in HALF WILD where Mercury starts talking about how long Gabriel has had his Gift that I realized he's only a little older than Nathan.

    Fear not: I didn't start shipping them until well after I knew Gabriel's true age. I ain't about to go rooting for thirty-five-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds to end up together.


  1. Aw, I remember when we went to the Harry Potter experience! That was a good time. I have to say that the opportunity to meet visiting book bloggers is one thing I really really REALLY miss about living in New York.

    I will give this series another try because I trust you, but I'm going to wait until the third book is out. I like reading serieses all in one gulp. It's more fun that way! Plus I can read not only the end of each book but also the ultimate end of everything. I would be a happier girl right now if I knew the ultimate end of the Raven Cycle series.

    1. The opportunity to meet book bloggers is the big thing I miss about going to New York for BEA. I want to hang out in person with the people I normally just see online.

      I hope you at least like the series when you try it again. (Actually, I hope you love it just as much as I do, but I'm trying to be all chill and aloof about it because maybe you won't.) I'm also usually an all-in-one-gulp person with series. If I'd known I was gonna love these books this much, I might have waited to start them.

  2. Both books are so good! Have you come across the prequel novella, Half Lies? It tells you a little of Gabriel's past.

    1. I have! I bought it the weekend after I finished HALF WILD because I needed more, stat.