Half World by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki 2010
Melanie Tamaki is fourteen years old, an outsider at school and struggling to make ends meet with her mother. Melanie's mother clearly loves her, but she tends to forget to run errands and can't hold down a job, and she has trouble holding down a job. One day, Melanie comes home to find that her mother is missing. She has been kidnapped by the gruesome Mr. Glueskin and taken back to the Half World. Melanie must save her mother and so she makes the frightful journey into the Half World.
Melanie is chubby, dubbed a 'slow learner' in school, and so she is bullied. I never felt connected to Melanie though. I sympathised with her being made fun of, but that was about all I felt for her. Sympathy. We don't learn much about Melanie's life, all we know is that she is poor, picked on and loves to read. I wanted to learn more about her history. I also would have liked to know where her story took place in the real world (my guess would be Canada just because that's where the author lives but I'm not sure). Melanie seemed rather immature too, maybe it's just me thinking I was oh-so-mature when I was fourteen. I also NEEDED more story about her parents and the other secondary characters Melanie runs into. I realize that Melanie didn't really have time to learn the life story of all the people she met but I wished we had gotten a better glimpse of all the characters. Perhaps a prequel is needed? Or a sequel? I would read it! I could take or leave the illustrations. They were nice, but they didn't contribute a great deal to the story. However I loved that the illustrator never drew the creatures of the Half World that were described in such vivid and stomach-churning detail (keep in my mind, I get scared easily so this was good for me). This allowed the reader to imagine the characters and I think that works better for this novel, the creatures are YOUR worst nightmares.
I did admire Melanie's soft power. Melanie is brave because she has to be, but like any teenager, she's utterly terrified of Mr. Glueskin and fears for the safety of her mom. Yet Melanie doesn't make any grand heroic gestures, she pauses and really weighs the consequences. She resists doing what she knows she needs to do. She's SCARED and that's normal and did make her a bit easier to relate to. Another favorite quote of mine that shows her power: "How much can a person bear? she thought hollowly.
The silence of the entire penthouse floor was profound. Only the steady beating of her foolish heart.
As much as she had to, Melanie thought grimly." (pg.121) In order to enter the Half World, an unpleasant task is required (and it's rather random, I wonder if the particular body part is meant to symbolize something?). The Half World is the place where mortals go after dying, it's a sort of dream world. In the Half World, mortals must relieve their greatest trauma they experienced while living (also known as the Realm of Flesh) until they are able to resolve the issue. It reminded me a bit of Purgatory. There are three worlds: the Realm of Flesh, the Half World and the Realm of Spirit (which is like Heaven in my mind). I was reminded of a recent post at The Enchanted Inkpot called Lost in Translation which talks about how symbols used in fantasy in the West can mean different things than in the East. For example, in Half World, I think crows are meant to be a good omen, but in Western culture, crows are a bad omen. I did some research and found that crows in Japan are thought to be a sign of the gods and thus are held in high regard.
Half World is a splendid book. The world building is excellent, the characters and scenes described are grotesque and yet completely enthralling. The action is fast-paced and Melanie is not the typical heroine who can do anything and has mysterious magical powers. She's mostly normal and her feelings of terror at being in the Half World and facing the dreadful Mr. Glueskin (and his glue-y tongue, yuck!) are ones that I could relate to as a teenager. While I think there is a lack of character development and back story, I'm ecstatic that I can confidently recommend a YA fantasy with a multicultural cast (or just a great fantasy read) and strong females who are not the typical 'warrior'. In fact, most of the women in this book are fierce but they would be considered fragile, their power appears almost out-of necessity, the adrenaline kicks in and then they harness this new found strength. Also, I think it's a bonus that this book has no hint of romance, instead it focuses on a strong mother-daughter bond and that is absolutely refreshing. Melanie starts out too dependent on her mother and she becomes more independent and at the same time her bond with her mother is strengthened.
This review originally ran at Reading in Color.
Read our interview with the author