I first read Sally Green’s Half Bad Trilogy of YA novels (including Half Bad, Half Wild, and Half Lost) two years ago, and at the time I really enjoyed it. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about these YA novels that involve young people standing up to injustices or find themselves fighting for something greater than themselves, what with everything going on in our world today: in this case it’s not per say exclusively the young people who are fighting, but they are the majority, as it is they who are facing a whole life of nothing but more and more injustice to come, and those who are able to bring in a new generation with new ideas.
The Half Bad Trilogy focuses on a society of witches that blends in with the regular world (“fains” as humans are called), but there is a council of “White Witches” that govern activity and search to hunt and kill all the “Black Witches” within the UK. In other regions of Europe, the White and Black witches basically just live apart and ignore each other, but the politics and fear of the governing council in the UK is slowly starting to leak into other nations. The distinction of Black vs White witches comes from ancient lineage, wherein two sister witches followed different paths: one used her magic for evil (black), while the other good (white). Since then, these two lines of witches have not crossed, and the assumption is that Black wiches continue to use their gifts for evil purposes, while the Whites use it for good, but is this really the case when all the White witches want to do is hunt and kill those who are simply from a different set of lineage and DNA from them, and instill fear and propaganda into other witches as to who should be allowed to live freely? (Ooooooooh boy do you see the glaring implications of a race metaphor here?)
This world of witches itself is an interesting one to get into (ie, how they govern, how they integrate into everyday society the breaks between full witches and half-witch-half-fains in society, etc), but the point of view we see it from is that of a teenager named Nathan, who is the son of the one the most dangerous Black witches in the world, as well as a deceased White witch: aka, he is the only half-blood on record. So naturally the White witch council doesn’t like this but also wants to use his skills and identity to hunt Nathan’s father down. Nathan lives his life not really belonging anywhere, fighting to discover the real sense of himself (is he more Black or White witch?), and being pulled in every direction of either what people want him to do for them, or people simply wanting him not to exist. All he wants is freedom and to not be constantly looking over his shoulder all his life.
Now, it has only been two years since my first read through this series, but already I have found certain things that I see differently than I did the first time around: some aspects I appreciate more, while others I question and think lesser of. Usually when I do rereads I find that it is at a much later time in life and so all that accumulated growth and knowledge lends itself to new lenses of viewing things, but in this case it has been just a short amount of time with a lot of crap going on in life that has made me see things differently.
Here’s the thing: this trilogy isn’t perfect. There were a few things that bothered me this time around; first and foremost the writing is a little awkward in the beginning, with Nathan as the narrator almost narrating to himself. For the most part this smooths out later in the series, and it ultimately wasn’t distracting enough to really ruin my enjoyment of the series. I did however find the dialogue a little stilted or strange at times. But to be fair, dialogue is very difficult to write… well, everything is, it’s hard to find something totally perfect after all! I think this may be why Green relies a little too much on skimming past certain parts of dialogue to say things like “and then we talked about this stuff” or “and then we did this stuff” (the word “stuff” really is used too much, I know that might be how teenagers talk but let’s be real, it feels too much like a filler) which I always find a little awkward in things and wish more thought would be put into how to address certain moments occurring not in real time or that need to be summarized. Finally, something I noticed this time around was the concept of love almost veering into obsession, which wasn’t necessarily addressed but perhaps could have been. Yet, even though I had little question marks popping up in my brain during these portions, I still got wrapped up in the emotions and gut punches of it all (I’m a sucker for unrequited love, y’all). Oh, and I didn’t like how so many wonderful and powerful female witches would get introduced only to be pushed aside or killed far too soon when I wanted to know so much more about them: they are so interesting, don’t tease me with that and then rip it all away!
But despite all these little things that could maybe be finessed a bit more, there is so much more that I love about this series. Firstly the real naturalistic feel to both the magic and the whole experience of Nathan struck something in me: there is a power there, a power to the earth and I think it is utilized well here. But beyond this simple personal liking of mine, there are just some great themes and ideas explored throughout the series: the exploration of identity and acting in a way to become the person other people see you as rather than how you want to be yourself, the search for freedom, the limits of the human spirit and what it is able to endure to survive, being complicit in injustice by in stepping aside just so you don’t get hurt yourself, our relationships with people and how we want to see them based on our own experiences, and even how our concept of morality can be changed by circumstance or what we think others want from us. There is a lot going on in terms of politics and human nature, and it all blends together in such a complex but meaningful way in Nathan.
Yet more than anything else, there is such an exploration of anger in this novel that I haven’t really seen elsewhere: most of the time when male anger and retribution is explored I find it in the form of a revenge story after their family/wife has been killed (you know, female suffering to further the plot of a man and give him Man Pain™). But here, Nathan has had his angry grow from years of injustice, mistreatment, judgments from people who do not know him, and so much more only because of who his father his and that they want to see him simply as a Black witch rather than for who he is. But do you think he’s ever been able to express this anger? Of course not, for then it would just solidify the idea in people’s minds that he is wild and angry and dangerous, even though he truly has a reason to be angry and have these emotions; this is yet another tie in to the racial implications of the story, and how often the stereotypes of “angry black woman” or “angry black man” get thrown around after they express any slightly negative emotion, no matter how reasonable or deserved it is. We can understand why Nathan does what he does, and I feel for him every step of the way; he is complicated and even though I may not always agree with his choices, it is clear why he is making them, and therefore as a narrator delivers and engaging perspective. Green is not afraid to take her series and protagonist to a dark place, which suits the subject matter perfectly. There is violence and it is unsettling, but I wouldn’t say it feels overly egregious.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed the Half Bad Trilogy a second time through: the story has good action and themes, and at the center a protagonist who really gets into your heart. He is lost and he is resilient, and he faces so much that you don’t know how one person could ever survive it all. This series truly explores the depth of the human spirit, and the idea of what is truly good and what is truly evil in our complicated world and with all the different types of people in it.