Hello, and welcome back to Weekly Reads!
Remember when I wanted to read one book a week? Why do I lie to myself like that? This week, I’ll be talking about three of the books I read—the Half Bad trilogy by Sally Green. And the best way I can sum up the hot mess that is the Half Bad trilogy, especially the latter two books, is to say that I’m pretty sure the author is a classic pantser.
Have any of you ever done Nanowrimo? It stands for National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November. It’s 30 days that you spend writing 50,000 words—more accurately a novella, but you get the picture. You’re allowed to plan ahead as long as you don’t write any words in advance.
Over there, we talk about pantsers and plotters; a pantser writes from “the seat of their pants,” while a plotter, as you might imagine, plots everything out. Most people fall on a spectrum between both extremes. My planning ranges from nothing but a title to a few pages of character ideas and scene prompts; needless to say, I’m much more of pantser (also I am just not great at novels). George R.R. Martin calls these archetypes architects and gardeners, but I think a gardener still has way more of a plan than I do. I appreciate his metaphor, though, since it’s more accurate regarding the amount of weeding and pruning it takes to make unplanned writing fit together coherently.
So what makes me think that Sally Green was pantsing it during the Half Bad trilogy? Well, there’s the shakily-handled racism metaphor (this trilogy is about a conflict between White and Black Witches, in which Black Witches are persecuted) that goes nowhere after the first book. There’s the fact that the first and second books end in abrupt cliffhangers that are both quests to go and find someone, both of which aren’t main plots of the following books and sort of dissolve. There are many reasons, actually.
But maybe the most relevant way to explain is the protagonist, Nathan, whose first-person perspective we hang out in through the trilogy. Nathan should be a classic unreliable narrator. He’s deeply traumatized, his mind in many ways has not been able to develop past fight or flee, and he’s experienced mostly small pockets of kindness from people who were or are snatched away from him, which makes him constantly vicious but he often doesn’t seem to know where to direct that anger (and often misplaces it and does awful things). And yet these novels continuously reinforce that, although Nathan is an “edgy” guy, he’s our hero. The people who put him down are exceedingly cruel about it. Those who hurt his loved ones or try to kill him are made out to be absolute monsters. Nathan might do some bad stuff, but it’s for the “greater good,” and his perspective, though dark, is meant to be lucid.
This might be a more interesting read if I just assume that even the dialogue, emotions, and actions of other characters that Nathan observes are also part of his unreliable narration, but then I have to bend over backwards to make this trilogy make sense and I’m not about that. Here’s the deal: I think we’re supposed to relate to Nathan. I don’t think we’re meant to love all of his decisions, but the narrative frames them as mostly necessary. We are in his head the whole time, and he is supposed to be honest. But Nathan’s emotions, motivations, and resulting actions are a hot mess, and I think they ended up that way because the author needed reasons to put Nathan into particular situations, because everything beyond the first book does not feel at all planned. Minor spoilers (no major plot points revealed) and some mention of child abuse ahead.
Nathan’s father (Marcus) has abandoned him his whole life and is a straight up cold-blooded serial killer. Nathan is troubled by his father’s abandonment and murderous nature for about .13 seconds (in the first book) and spends a whole lot of time thinking and talking about what a great man he is, even among people who have had family members murdered by the guy. He doesn’t spend much time with Marcus, nor get much of an explanation for basically anything, but Nathan loves the heck out of him anyway and is motivated to do what Marcus wants from him. This can be explained easily if we consider that Nathan is compartmentalizing the “bad Marcus” to imagine the fantasy version of his all-powerful dad who loves him and rescues him, but then we also have to accept that Nathan is already off-balance, which is not the conclusion the narrative wants us to come to.
So then, the extent to which Nathan romanticizes Marcus is completely baffling, especially considering how angry Nathan is at literally everyone else (even people who haven’t at all wronged him or anyone he knows). It seems like the author simply wants Nathan to feel this way about Marcus so that Marcus can be used in Nathan’s plot to drum up motivation, pathos, and so on. The love is explained by his “connection” to his father, but I don’t think any level of resemblance, magical or not (because this story is about witches, by the way), can make you ignore that you grew up without parents because one of them was busy eating people’s hearts.
(There’s also the excuse of a prophecy that the son will kill the father, which is meant to explain why Marcus avoided Nathan. However, the novels waffle on the solidity of visions and imply that their outcomes can come about in various ways, some more tragic than others. Visions are always a reasonably transparent plot device, so one has to be careful with how much weight they receive and how they’re used, and in this case, the vision ends up a thin excuse. One would think the easiest way to avert an awful outcome would be for Marcus to have raised his own son rather than leaving him in a world where he’d be raised to hate his father, but I guess he was too busy eating people’s hearts.
But he did come back in time to ensure his son didn’t outright die. What a loving dad!)
Nathan also falls in love with a girl he only seems to meet up with a few times in the first book, but ret-con has more memories of in the second book. This seems like an obvious pantsing decision to expand the relationship to justify Nathan’s feelings so that he’ll be motivated by this love interest, whereas this could’ve been more easily explained by the fact that Nathan is a traumatized, lonely dude who would be completely open to fixating on a pretty girl who was nice to him a couple of times. (See, I like these novels better if I just allow myself to see Nathan as he would be, not as the story claims he is.)
I’m sure there are more examples of Nathan’s improvised relationships, but my last one for now will be Celia. Celia keeps Nathan in a cage in his youth and works to break him with training that includes torture and brainwashing tactics. When Nathan re-encounters her as a free man, he is initially angry with her, but she seems to be somewhat “redeemed” later on in the narrative/his perspective despite the fact that she believed in (and does not repent) what she did with and to him.
I have no idea why the author made this choice; it would’ve been easy enough to slip in a quick “I did it because someone else would’ve been worse/you needed the training/other excuses.” At first I thought she didn’t because she didn’t want Celia to be redeemed, which I thought would be refreshing, but nope she’s unrepentant but still is attached to Nathan as if he were a child of hers and he also seems to develop a (begrudging) affection for her and it’s messed up as heck? I can’t really speculate on the purpose of this since the weirdness of it could’ve been mitigated but the author chose not to—I suppose to keep Celia appearing “tough,” but that also leaves her in a position to not be Nathan’s friend. I get the impression that we (like Nathan) are meant to admire Celia’s toughness and what she trained him as well as the respect and authority she gains later in the story, despite the fact that he was captured at fourteen and kept on a short leash using a collar of acid.
Again, if we were meant to understand that Nathan is unreliable, this would make sense; Stockholm syndrome vibes, or maybe Nathan is just so traumatized about how many people are trying to kill him that he feels affection towards those who only beat him as a child. (Despite—again—the fact that Nathan feels angry at literally everyone, including people doing the least harm they can to ensure their survival.)
In any case: the Half Bad trilogy had an interesting premise with a very uneven delivery, and after the first book, it started to unravel completely. It was a reasonably interesting magical world, in that the rituals that are described sound cool, the spells we do get to know about are neatly described, and the backstory of Nathan’s family was intriguing. But a lot of the narrative is Nathan reacting to bad things happening to him with escape or violence, so there’s not a lot of time spent on worldbuilding, development of other characters (we learn next to nothing about people who aren’t Nathan), or even dialogue. (Characters have a few Big Lines that echo, which seems to be a common trope in YA, but they don’t talk through things a lot.) And Nathan himself is a hot mess, so.
(Also, major spoilers if you click this, but this trilogy also jumped on the bandwagon of this dreaded godawful trope for its ending.)
Sorry, Half Bad trilogy, but you were only half good, if that. I’m not trying to be harsh; I think pantsing a YA series with very little time from writing to publication is bound to end up in a lot of cut corners, and there’s potential enough here for the author to improve (and hopefully learn which parts of this are Not Okay).
But as for these books? Welcome to the nope pile: population you.