Half World is one of those books that I pick up from time to time from the Children’s section where I work. I find a poor, neglected volume that is due for return to the publisher, but which I can’t send back before at least trying first. I was somewhat surprised to find Half World on my returns list – not only is it an award-winner with an amazing cover, I was sure it had enough buzz to propel it along. But life is tough at my bookstore – often without a staff member to love and recommend it, a book will die an undeserved death. This is why I constantly lament the imbalance in my time/book ratio in life. This time my efforts were rewarded – I found Half World to be a solid, satisfying fantasy with enough unusual elements to make it very enjoyable.
I loved the setup for Half World: there are three realms of existence: the Spirit Realm, the realm of Flesh, and Half World. These realms are meant to be interconnected – we pass through Flesh to Spirit, or to Half Life if we must cleanse ourselves of something. After a stretch in Half World we find release as a spirit; when our energy begins to flag we are reborn as flesh. But somehow these realms have become disjointed: the spirit realm is drifting away as spirits forget their connection to flesh and slowly fade from existence; the flesh world is filled with dismay and discord without the release provided by the other two worlds; and those in half life are trapped, repeating their trauma and reliving their nightmares for an eternity.
In comes Melanie Tamaki, an unhappy fourteen-year-old who has been neglected by her mother and outcast by her peers. Melanie doesn’t know that she belongs to two realms: her mother became pregnant in Half World and journied to the Wold of Flesh to raise her daughter. Now, fourteen years later they are both being called back to repay a debt and to account for the impossibility of this life that was created in Half World.
Once it gets going, Half World becomes one of those child/teen-goes-to-a-strange-world-and-saves-it-then-returns-home-with-a-solution-to-his/her-original-problems book. It’s such an overused plot that I have become quite impatient with it. Unless the book is special – we’re talking Narnia special – then I get very bored and annoyed. I think I find these books tedious because they always end the same way – the world is saved and the character returns home with more than they originally sought. If the ending is going to be that predictable, then I darn well want the main story to be unique and fascinating.
In this case, it was almost fascinating enough. There is not much that is truly unique about Half World, but it does contain some great elements capably combined. The feel is very Neil Gaiman, with a disturbing alternate world and some kind and clever guides (I’m thinking Neverwhere and Coraline in particular). It has just the same level of threat and violence that you would find in one of his books. The great villan (I won’t ruin his secret, which is one of the best parts of the book) is Mr. Glueskin. In his gloopy, sticky and disguisting appearance, he reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, and slimy, depressed Howl. These are wonderful authors to borrow from, and Hiromi Goto does a good job of creating a similar feel, but with a concept that stands all on its own.
The main character was interesting – Melanie has a good heart, but trouble remembering things, and she has never fit in. I am actually quite pleased to see that there is a sequel coming out next spring because I’d like to see her grow up – there was just a hint of what she could become in this novel. I would also enjoy seeing her in love, and being loved by someone romantically. I think she could be remarkable if she was ever in her own element (I’m not sure what that would be though – she navigates our world and half world well, but doesn’t belong to either).
So I have been won over, and the book will stay on our shelves. I enjoyed the Japanese elements and fantasy that borrowed from Asian sources. There were amazing illustrations, and an interesting enough tale and characters to keep me moving through the well-drawn (though familiar) plot.