Being an teenager isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for sixteen year old Nathan Byrn. Growing up in modern day Britain, one would expect his life to be full of social media and cell phones, thoughtless school pranks and unwelcome growing pains. But for Nathan, it’s a time of increasing restrictions, cruelly inflicted intimidation and isolation.
You see, Nathan comes from a long line of witches. Witches are actually quite common in the world, although they tend to keep to themselves and their own communities. There are two types of witches: White Witches and Black Witches. White Witches are supposed to be “good” witches, those who use their Gifts for the greater good and the betterment of their society. Black Witches are considered evil, and are sought out by Hunters – White Witches who are trained to ferret out and destroy errant Black Witches. And Black Witches are generally considered quite evil, with a history of killing and disrupting not only White Witch families and enclaves, but even murdering their own kin, their own parents, grandparents, spouses. Black Witches are violent, unpredictable, suspect.
And Nathan’s father, Marcus, is the darkest Black Witch of them all.
But Nathan’s mother, Cora, is a White Witch, and not only a White Witch from a solid, loving family, but a White Witch with a great Gift for healing, a beautiful, loving woman. She and Marcus had been driven apart when they were young, and Cora ended up marrying a White Witch instead. The supposedly loving couple had three children, two girls and a boy, before a marauding Marcus returned, murdering the husband and leaving Cora pregnant with Nathan, before disappearing again. Shortly after her son was born – her son who is half White and half Black – Cora committed suicide, and the children were left to be raised by their grandmother.
Nathan was watched closely by the Council of the White Witches of England, Scotland and Wales, controlled by their edicts and Notifications aimed at restricting his actions until his Half Code designation could be resolved by his being declared either White or Black, achieved when he reached his maturity at age 17. Seventeen was a momentous age for a witch; on their 17th birthday, a whet (a witch who had not yet reached maturity) would undergo a ritual where they would be given three gifts and partake of the blood of a close relative, thus unlocking their natural Gift, which would define their lives going forward as full-fledged Witches.
But Nathan has a lot to endure before his 17th birthday. Throughout the year, from a very young age, he had to appear before the cold and dreaded Council for an “assessment”, to determine if he would be designated “white” or “black”. Counseled by his grandmother to say little and trust no one, and especially not to say anything about his father that could be in any way construed as having an interest in him, Nathan comes away from each assessment as “not ascertained”. But as the years go by, the assessments become more pointed and manipulative, and Nathan’s treatment outside of the Council by not only authority figures, but also neighbors and classmates, becomes twisted and cruel. Sometimes it seems like everyone is trying to trip him up, to get him to admit that he admires his father, to prove that he is not White at all, but Black, as black as his eyes – his father’s eyes.
Everyone, that is, except his Gran, his sweet sister Deborah and benevolent brother Arran, and Annalise, the lovely daughter of a White Witch family who seems to be able to see past Nathan’s heritage and prodded hostility to the sensitive, brooding boy beneath. But when his siblings start to move out into the world, and Annalise is forbidden to have anything to do with him, he realizes that his very existence, at some level, puts them all in danger. This becomes especially evident as his own abilities begin to manifest themselves, causing further restrictions placed on him to chafe to an unbearable degree.
Finally pushed past a breaking point, Nathan ends up being removed from his home and incarcerated without explanation in a remote Scottish holding, with a stern and uncompromising witch who is both his jailor and his trainer. This is when he realizes what he is being trained for, and just how remarkable he truly is – and why the Council fears him so.
Half Bad may not break much ground as far as an original story line is concerned – a half blood child has to come to terms with his disparate background and find his own way in the world – but what author Sally Green has done is take this rather stock story line and craft it into a believable environment that eschews simple black/white, good/bad tropes even as it is awash in the lingo and hyperbole of those tropes. Just as in our modern society it is hard to determine who to listen to regarding the right path to take, who is or is not “on our side”, and how much of what we have been told can we believe, so too Nathan struggles with manipulation and an absence of verifiable truth as he moves through what he is allowed to control of his life. He must act mainly on instinct, with few touchstones to anchor him to something beyond the life of revenge and retribution that virtually all the contacts in his life seem to be pushing him towards.
Yet Nathan is no tragic hero. True, the odds have been stacked against him since birth, and he has grown in a world where even his eldest sister abhors his touch and blames him for their mother’s death. But he does very little to overcome the assumptions that are cast his way, even though underneath his standoffishness he is sensitive and full of yearning. While he does love to draw, he has very little interest in learning how to read, because it is difficult for him and therefore not worth the effort. He’s sullen and unresponsive, uncooperative and unmotivated to try to achieve much beyond making himself the smallest target possible. His default posture is to retreat, or to simply refuse to be drawn out. While this is understandable, given his background and upbringing, it is not the way we expect our tragic heroes to act. We expect them to shine. Nathan doesn’t shine, he smolders. But it is exactly this hidden intensity, this clenched existence that makes him appear so real in an unreal world, so recognizable in strange circumstances. This is a hero kids of today can understand and with whom they can identify.
And Half Bad is not all bleakness, either. While much of Nathan’s life is precarious, other aspects of it are beautifully compelling. He has a loving relationship with his Gran and sister Deborah, and a truly touching rapport with his brother, Arran. He yearns to know more of his father and dreams that Marcus is not as evil as he has been portrayed, although he fears in his heart – and from all that he has heard from White and Black Witches alike – that the truth is even worse than he has yet to realize. He is not reticent about being a witch; he embraces its rituals and history, and anticipates its milestones, accepts its conventions – Black and White. He sees beauty in unexpected places and has a great tolerance and patience for things unknown, and has an affinity for the land and feels a part of the natural world, all within the backdrop of being an outsider. And for all the violence inflicted upon him and of which he takes part, often willingly, he is adamantly against the taking of a life – something that does not seem out of character for this complex, stunted, beautifully rendered boy.
The first time I’m away by myself I lie on the ground. Lying on a Welsh mountain is special. I try to work it out: I am happy when I’m with Arran, just being with him, watching his slow and peaceful nature. That’s a special thing. And I’m happy with Annalise, really happy, looking at how beautiful she is and forgetting who I am for the time she’s with me. That’s pretty special, too. But lying on a Welsh mountain is different. Better. That’s the real me. The real me and the real mountain, alive and breathing as one.
The weaving of Nathan’s past life story with the events leading up to his 17th birthday is the focus of this first-of-three book in “The Half Bad Trilogy”, leaving some major questions unanswered while deftly satisfying others. It is a quick read, but by no means an easy one. There is violence in the book, some of it cruel (but none of it gratuitous) and some characters who perhaps are not horrifying but are dreadfully unsettling. It’s not a book for younger readers with delicate imaginations, but older kids used to darkness and the macabre will appreciate the depth of the book, and its refusal to sink into an easily abysmal sensibility. “Enjoyable” may not seem to be the most applicable word to use in a story as somber and yet compelling as Half Bad, but it is an apt one. I look forward to the next installment of the series with great anticipation.