Can Half Bad be the next Harry Potter?
Sally Green’s ‘Half Bad’ has all the ingredients, but the result has an odd aftertaste
Sally Green, a 52-year-old former accountant, spent the better part of the last three years writing Half Bad, the book that’s being talked up as the successor to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—and not without reason it would seem.
The first of a projected trilogy about the conflict between White and Black Witches, Half Bad tells the story of a boy called Nathan, born of a mother who was a White Witch with extraordinary healing powers and a father who is the darkest and most destructive of Black Witches.
Green has a seven-figure advance and publishing deals in 36 countries, and although the trilogy’s resonances with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is less remarked on, Karen Rosenfelt, the producer of The Twilight Saga, has already bought film rights to the books, along with Fox 2000.
Like the boy who lived in spite of being nearly killed by he who must not be named, Nathan has an affinity with the angels as well as the devil—and there ends his resemblance to Harry Potter. Much feared and hated by both communities of witches, he is persecuted for most of the book, unlike Potter, who is openly protected by many of his clan.
At 17, Nathan will be given three Gifts by a member of his family and made to drink their blood (an unmistakable nod to Twilight) before being inducted into full-blown witchhood. Even as a young boy, Nathan has an incredible ability to withstand suffering and also a tender heart. He does not want to kill if he can help it, unlike his father, who seems to revel in murder, and eats up his victims to steal their magical powers.
In spite of his usual temper tantrums, Nathan is affectionate towards his half-brother Arran, one of the few people who care for him, and in love with Annalise, who belongs to a family of pure White Witches that despises him. He shows no eating disorder to make us worry about his sanity. Although he is slow with reading, he shows considerable drawing skills, and does not seem to be too disturbed at being the object of another boy’s affections.
Nathan embodies an idea that came to Green, as she says in the acknowledgements, from Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Although the sentiment may be the wellspring of many contemporary young-adult fantasies, in Green’s case it seems to have assumed a somewhat cloyingly singular focus.
Written in pithy sentences, Half Bad is obsessed with the middle path between pure good and pure evil. These categories, as the book repeatedly shows, are vulnerable and can be easily subverted. For much of the story, for instance, the White Witches behave in the most appalling manner towards Nathan, which is peculiar for a group trying to woo him to its side, while the Black ones come out looking much nobler, like Satan in Paradise Lost.
The action is relentless but predictable. The cycle of chase, escape and violence gets tedious and self-indulgent after the first section and so does the amateurish insistence on the second person singular narrative voice. If there was one thing that endeared Rowling to her readers, it was her impeccably elegant prose, old-fashioned but never off the mark, and unfailingly nimble and sure-footed in its intention to tell a gripping tale.
In contrast, Green’s attempt at a modernist pastiche comes across as stiff and mannered. Her strategy of putting in blood and gore every few pages merely adds to the bulk of the book and does not thicken the plot. The ending is neatly executed, paving an easy passage for the next instalment, though one doubts if many will be waiting for it with bated breath.
Half Bad, published by Penguin (Rs.350), is available in book stores.
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