In both Sally Green’s YA debut and the new novel from 2014 Printz-Award winner Marcus Sedgwick, the teen protagonists endure fear, violence, and various atrocities. But over the course of these two very different books, it becomes clear that the cruelest thing they each face, the thing that is hardest to endure, is loneliness.
Green’s “Half Bad” is much more than a book about witches. Her page-turner is a ruminative exploration of the nature of evil. Is it innate? Can you perform evil acts in the name of “good”? Is a nefarious character genetic destiny, or is it true that “how you think and how you behave . . . shows who you are”?
In “Half Bad,” which is set in contemporary England, Black and White Witches live undetected among humans, and Nathan Byrn comes into the world already cursed. His father is the most powerful Black Witch in the world, and, according to Nathan’s sister, his White Witch mother committed suicide over the shame of having a “Half Code,” a witch of mixed origin.
Nathan grows up wishing he knew more about his father, whom the White Witch Council desperately wants to kill. Nature, his brother Arran, and stolen moments with a pure-hearted White Witch named Annalise give him respite from his alienation. However, the older Nathan gets, the more Orwellian the Council Resolutions dictating Half Code life become. Just as the 15-year-old is beginning to understand himself and his abilities, the Council imprisons him in a remote corner of Scotland. For nearly two years, Nathan spends his nights in a cage and his days in training so that one day he can be used as a weapon against his father.
By using the second person for some of the scenes of lip-biting horror, Green presses readers to experience Nathan’s torment. Her talent for description means that when he is beaten, burned, or shackled, readers can actually imagine the feel of metal biting into skin. However, the most distressing sections involve the solitude of the teen’s caged life.
“And I think of my ancestors and all their pain and suffering, and I still don’t understand why,” Nathan thinks. “I don’t want to live in a cage and I don’t want to die in a cell and I don’t want to be tortured and I don’t want to kill my father. I don’t want any of it, but it just goes on and on.”
Nathan needs to receive three gifts and the blood of ancestor in order to become a full witch by his 17th birthday. If he doesn’t, he’ll die. Anger and remnants of hope fuel his determination to be free. He escapes from the Council, and his quest takes him to Geneva, where he meets Black and White Witches of all sorts: kind, manipulative, and loving. Right before the sequel-promising ending, Nathan realizes what he has wished to understand his whole life: “I know who I am.”
Like “Half Bad,” “She Is Not Invisible” explores identity, courage, and the unparalleled loneliness of being different. However, it is much harder to know what to make of Sedgwick’s elegant conundrum of a novel. Is it a metaphysical treatise disguised as YA fiction or is it simply a New York City adventure story about a 16-year-old girl and her “slightly strange seven-year-old” brother?
When 16-year-old Laureth Peak reads an e-mail from someone who has found her writer father’s notebook in Queens, N.Y., she knows something is wrong. Her father is supposed to be in Switzerland doing research for a novel that has become his obsession, his book about coincidences. Since her mother is too fed up with Laureth’s father to care, the unnervingly smart teen decides to fly from London with her brother Benjamin to find him herself. Readers do not discover until several pages in that she is blind.
Though Laureth relies on Benjamin to help her navigate, she does all she can to avoid the isolation that comes with being disabled. She knows what tricks to use to prevent people from realizing she’s blind: Raise your hand before they do; turn toward the voice when someone is speaking, etc. “Because I’m not unhappy with the way I am, because I don’t mind being blind,” she says. “What I mind is people treating me as if I’m stupid.”
She and Benjamin recover their father’s journal and trace his footprints around a summer steamy Big Apple. The story is told by Laureth and so skilled is Sedgwick’s writing that it takes a while to realize that the protagonist presents New York City without visual descriptions unless they come from another character.
Passages from her father’s journal and Laureth’s own ponderimgs introduce head-spinning ideas about coincidences — from Littlewood’s Law, which states that “you can expect to see something miraculous happen once every 35 days or so,” to the concept of apophenia, “that thing we all have inside us, a desire, a tendency, a need in fact, to spot patterns.”
Why does Benjamin destroy electronics when he touches them? What exactly does the circumstantial and unsatisfying ending say about coincidences? Perhaps uncertainty is the point. As Laureth discovers, “you don’t have to understand everything about something to love it, do you? In fact sometimes that can make you love something more.”
SHE IS NOT INVISIBLE
By Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 224 pp., $16.99