Wednesday, May 18, 2016

#CBR8 Review #12-14: Half Bad Trilogy by Sally Green

Half Bad. Half Wild. Half Lost.

It sets itself up to follow the usual young adult series storyline, yet there was something really intriguing about this series to me, and I absolutely devoured all three of the books as fast as possible. It might be that I’ve never really experienced the mythology of witches presented quite in the way this book does, which made it interesting to me. There is also such a survival instinct present in these books, and a connection to nature that is really beautiful, particularly in relation to the protagonist and his father.

I also appreciate how a lot of young adult books nowadays don't feel the need to shy away from serious topics or from things that are a little grim. Of course, that's not for everyone, and despite there being quite a bit of violence in these novels, I found that it worked well with the tone of the story and the themes present. Also, I think it was very much a stylistic choice of Sally Green to describe things in enough detail for the reader to imagine the world, but not in super intense descriptions. This may come across as simple in some regards, but I found that it worked in a lot of ways, given that I personally could then imagine the world and just how gruesome any violence was, in a way that worked best for me. I mean, we are all going to imagine the story differently in our individual minds anyways, there might as well be some leeway. The only time when this sometimes more simple writing may be considered too basic is when the protagonist describes things by saying, "it was good," or "we did things," etc, but I think that really reflects the way a character of that age would actually talk about things. I'm no better at describing stuff at times, either. Sometimes the most basic words are what's best in a situation.

But now that I have that preamble out of the way, let's actually talk about what this book is about. You know the YA drill: a government system with questionable practices meets defiance by a young person who somehow doesn’t fit (or refuses to fit) within the established system. In this case, this takes shape in the form of a Council of witches. White witches, to be exact, who run a council in England that governs the activity of white witches, and also hunts down black witches for capture and trial with a team of trained hunters (all of which are white witches). In some areas of Europe, black and white witches generally just have their own territories and leave each other alone, but of course the influence of the council and hunters extend to these other areas as the story in the Half Bad trilogy progresses. Some half-blood witches exist, though these are mainly half-human/half-witch (black or white). There is only one Half-White/Half-Black witch on record: Nathan, a teenage witch around whom the trilogy centers. (You see what I mean about the typical young adult trope of him being the different one who can therefore defying the current order of things? Don’t worry, he’s an interesting character and there are only a few hints of the “special snowflake” feeling in these books. At least, that’s what I felt while reading them). Nathan's white-witch mother died when he was young, after she had an affair with a powerful and fearful black witch, Marcus, whom fathered Nathan. Marcus has since been on the run, often leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, and never contacting Nathan. Meanwhile, Nathan lives with his white witch grandmother and three half-siblings, who were all fathered by another white witch that was killed by Marcus. For the most part, these family members do not resent Nathan or what has happened, as he is just a young boy who had no hand in what his father did. Though Nathan's one half-sister Jessica obviously hates him, and wants nothing more than to see him suffer. Other white witches that Nathan meets at school or at gatherings, etc, also do not seem to like him because of his parentage, and he has to put up with a lot of cruelty and harassment from other witches.

So that is the setup for Nathan and his background. But where does the action begin? I'm going to give a preemptive *spoilers warning* for everything following, though I will try and be as vague as possible for most of it.
Being that Nathan is the only half-black/half-white witch on record, the Council obviously wants to keep tabs on him, as a way to make sure he can fit into white witch society, and not turn "too black". At least, this is what they say, as Nathan endures assessments year after year and is repeatedly asked about his father, whom Nathan soon realizes the Council wants to track down to kill, given his power and brutal track-record of killing other witches. Basically, the council wants to use Nathan as a tool to capture his father, despite Nathan having never met him. This results in some harsh activity from the Council, including imprisonment and training Nathan to be a fighter for their desires. Of course, because of his treatment throughout the years, Nathan has come to his own conclusions about the Council, and even who he is or where he fits in society. And you can be sure that he doesn't want to comply with everything the Council says, nor to do a lot of other witches (black witches, most notably, but some white witches have also faced poor treatment from the council as well). This ultimately leads to exactly what you might imagine: resistance from Nathan, fleeing the Council, meeting up with others who do not approve of what is going on with the treatment of various witches, and inevitable war and fighting. Nathan makes some serious enemies along the way, as well as some great friends and allies who play major roles in the outcome of everything.

Those are the basics for the premise though I must admit, a lot more happens in these novels than I was expecting, in terms of both where Nathan ends up and the different relationships that occur and change as time progresses. And with everything that happens, I love Nathan as a character in that he goes through so much, is such a survivor, and yet is given room to be angry: I feel like a lot of the time, the center of a story or the hero people look to has a particular persona and demeanor, but given everything that has occurred in his life, you would expect Nathan to be angry, and he really is, and in fact at times he is a bit unlikable, yet you still want him to come out of this and be fine. His past and what occurs may explain why he is the way he is, but Nathan himself often recognizes that what he does is not right; he may claim that his actions are out of necessity, but there is a conscience and there is hate and a lot of strong emotions that really are present in anyone's life, not just those of a teenager.

Along those lines, something that I also really liked in the last book of this series was the presentation of certain relationships with Nathan, given his personality and all that he strives to do in his anger. One character in particular who loves Nathan deeply wants to follow Nathan and support him in everything, yet does talk about how he doesn't particularly like Nathan at some times. It is a great illustration of the fact that you can love someone and support someone, while still not agreeing with them completely, and in fact even hating them or not liking them at times. There are times when you just need time away from people, even if you love them; you can love someone while still disliking them at certain times. 

I will also mention that I enjoyed how witch "gifts" and their powers were presented in this book. I have not read too many books focused on witches before, so I don't know what a lot of worlds do in terms of their witch mythology, but this one seemed to work really well in terms of how things played out in the novel. These witches do not have their "gift" or power until they reach the age of seventeen (though some do develop the ability to heal themselves before this age). At the age of seventeen, a witch must go through a giving ceremony, which involves the presentation of three gifts to the young witch, and the drinking of blood from an older relation who has already developed their power. From there, a young witch may take some time to determine what particular skill they have inherited. Many times, particular gifts run in families, or they are related to the witch's personality in some way. These may include anything from: potions skills, weather control, shapeshifting, invisibility, being able to immobilize people through sound waves, stopping time, having protective metal skin, or anything else you can imagine, really. Some gifts are obviously more rare than others, but there is such a wide range presented that really anything is possible, and particular gifts may even manifest differently in different witches depending on how they personally apply them. I liked that concept a lot, and was always interested to hear about more and more gifts, even imagining what my own would be (which is always a fun game, kind of like the "if you were an XMen what would your mutation be?" question I always pose to people or no reason whatsoever). 

But now that I've gone on a big sprawl of the things I enjoyed about this series, let us touch on those things that I didn't. First and foremost, there were a lot of characters who we didn't get to spend too much time with, seeing as they died not long after meeting them. Particularly powerful female witches, who were incredibly intriguing and I wanted to know more about them! But alas, they disappeared too soon, and some of them just when I was starting to like them or really want to spend some time with.

Also, while I really enjoyed the progress and overall story of these novels, and can understand why everything that happened happened, something about the ultimate ending just doesn't entirely jive with me. I think that may be a personal feeling of mine, but something at the end just seemed a little out-of-character for a few of the characters. I think the biggest thing was how little of a role Nathan's brother, Arran started to play in his story, and how disconnected they started to feel near the end. Maybe I just thought Arran would end up being a bigger part of everything than he was, and found there to be a shift in Nathan that was warranted but still felt maybe a little... stilted? Not entirely organic? I'm not sure, it might just be me on that one.  

But you know what? It's time to wrap this up. This book gave me feelings and I loved it. I love YA literature, and really enjoyed this series because it wasn't hard to read but still engaging and dipping into some great themes throughout. The pace of the narrative may zip at some points and then slow down at others, yet the pace with which I read it didn't shift one bit. I can't wait until my friend who initially got me to read this series finishes the last book (I overtook her in the reading of the final novel as she's been busy lately) because I need to DISCUSS THINGS that I know she will have strong feelings about as well. So basically, if you like YA series, don't mind the typical premise of them with the obligatory supernatural factor, and like engaging in well thought-out worlds that are still somehow related to our own, then I would definitely give the Half Bad trilogy a look. I certainly plan on rereading them at some point in the future. 

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