The final part of the Half Bad trilogy is here.
No way are these books for children. They are young adult, possibly with a plus. They are dark, they are violent, they are gruesome, they are harrowing - and they are quite, quite brilliant.
You are given a page and a bit of introduction to this third part, all dialogue. Unattributed. Enigmatic. There are no crude prompts. You can't start here. You need to remember who these people are, where they are, why. You need to understand what they are about.
But you have read the first two books. You do remember. You do understand. What went before is unforgettable. Hard wired now. Burned in. But this is a marker. You will not be spoon fed here. You are part of this story. You must share the work - and the killing.
And now you are straight back. Right inside Nathan's mind. Sharing his every thought. It is where you badly want to be. You have waited a while. It is where you least want to be. You are dreading it. He is disturbed and seriously disturbing. Deranged? He is counting again. He counted at the start of Book One. He often counts, or so it feels. But then he counted to survive. To survive his incarceration. Now he counts his kills. He counts and plans to add another. The big one. And already you want to scream at him. He is still so young. Please no. It is yourself you will kill.
Annalise is your past not your present. Gabriel is now. Gabriel loves you. You know that. You as Nathan, and you as you. His love is so patient, so all pervasive. It too is terrifying.
There are scraps of recap in Nathan's mental rambling. You do not need them. You remember because he remembers. He knows. He feels. You feel. Already you have to struggle to keep yourself separate from Nathan. It is useless. Give in. In almost every other instance, present tense narrative gets right up your wick. Here resistance is useless. You are Nathan. It is your present. Get used to it.
And this is war. In war you kill. You are a killer. Do you live to kill? Kill the enemy? Kill her? It starts to feel like it. Despite yourself and any qualms of your own, the you that is now, that is Nathan, revels in the kill. In the fight. In the victory. In the act of killing itself.
Sometimes talking to Gabriel feels like hearing your own conscience. Maybe he is your conscience and you don't have one of your own. He says the war is killing you. Not your body but your mind, your soul. A lot of the time you just swear at him. You swear at him a lot. Can you do anything but kill? You are mastering your father's gifts. Now they are your gifts. You can use them to kill. You are half black, half white. Are you becoming all black? Or is your white side just as much a killer as the black. Are you your father?
And then that great witch, Van,arrives with her tale of the Vardian Amulet. With her quest to find the mystical, supermagical witch Ledger. With her mission to use the amulet to defeat the arch-evil Soul. And sudenly you could almost be swept back into a world of high fantasy.
But no. For all its cloak of fantasy, of witches, of magic, this is essentially a war story. The witches' 'gifts' are weapons. Of ever increasing power and sophistication. At least potentially so. To be used for good or ill. But what is 'good'? The early books in the sequence shockingly warped the Tolkienesque concepts of good-bad, light-dark, white-black. Here there is good in black, evil in white, ambivalence in both.
Now, though, what is formed is an alliance of black and white. At least nominally so. Formed to defeat the repressive, megalomaniac tyrant. To institute instead a society of inclusion and tolerance. Black and white living together in cooperation and mutual respect. So this is a 'righteous' war then. A 'justifiable' war, despite its horrendous carnage. Perhaps we are back to Tolkien after all. But here the depiction is subtler, more nuanced, more realistic. More now. This Young Adult story is as grown up as it gets. It asks the most profound question. How much killing is justified by the greater good?
It is a universal theme. Potent with resonance. In the present.
The adagio of this war symphony is provided by a visit to the male/female Ledger. He/she is the arch-mage of hippies. The personification of 'make love not war'. A sort of wonderous composite of Carl Jung, Mahatma Gandhi and Mister Miyagi. He/she offers Nathan an alternative to war. To find himself by establishing contact with the earth, the source of all true power. But Nathan cannot stay with Ledger. He may not know if he should kill, but he knows he must. It is what he is for. What he does. He is needed if the war is to be won. And it must be won.
And here is the great heart of the book. It is not simply a universal story. It is simultaneously a deeply individual one. Nathan's story. Now, in the present moment, your story.
It is the fallout of an abandoned and horrendously abused childhood. A boy trying to find out if he can truly be himself or only be what others have made him. Or if the two are now the same. It is a boy trying to find out if he can be both black and white, or whether he must descend for ever into the dark.
Perhaps more than anything this is a love story. It is Love in the Time of War. In the earlier books Nathan was Heathcliffe, with his childhood friend Cathy. Falling adoringly for her as they both emerged into adolescence, only to be betrayed, cut to the quick. But now he is Achilles to a shimmering Patroclus. The passage between the two youths in the bunker bathroom, where the blood of a slaughtered victim still stains the bath, must surely be amongst the most sensuous, tender and moving ever written, whatever your gender or orientation. This is not so much Tolkien as Wagner. Redemption through love. The witch boy learns to mind that it hurts.
Time moves. The story moves. You find yourself slipping out of Nathan's head and then back into it again. It is such clever, such absorbing writing. Its ambivalence, its frequent morphing of viewpoint, is itself exciting. There is no truth, only perception.
There are still times, many times when you share his eyes, his thoughts, his every breath. You are still Nathan. At others you allow him to narrate for you, first hand, as events scutter, jostle, hurtle past. Either way it grips, like an iron claw around your heart. Don't forget to breathe.
The Half Bad trilogy is classic tragedy. It may not have unity of time place and action, but Nathan's story is one of hubris, nemesis and catharsis. It explores both the compellingly universal and the tellingly individual. What else is a great book?
Knowing it is the last of the trilogy, Half Lost is one of those rare, precious books you simultaneously do and don't want to finish. Call it masochism. You know it will end badly. It is really no spoiler to say it ends badly. It was always going to end badly. It could end no other way.
It is a book which, when finished, when present is finally past, leaves you stripped, raw, drained. There are enough words to be heart-rendering. Never so many as to be sentimental. You are bereaved. All you can do is cling on to the memories. Plant them. Grow them. But the mouth-to-mouth whispers in the bloody bathroom are still just too poignant. Do not think of them. Count or something. Keep them out of your head. Better to remember the night you sat by the fire in Camp Three and told him about Wales.
. . . When the war is over!
I said after reading the first two parts, Half Bad and Half Wild [see my post from June '15] that this was a fine work which might very possibly be great in the future. It depended on Part Three. Half Lost is here. Sally Green builds searing reality out of fantastical imagination. It demonstrates how great writing for young adults can be great writing, period. It is true literature. It is a great story, a desperately important one, and a deeply affecting one. It may end in the past. But the whole is indeed a great work. Right now. In the present.