Fourteen-year-old misfit Melanie Tamaki comes home from school, having been bullied as usual, to find that her sickly alcoholic mother has vanished. She learns (after sensibly seeking adult help rather than immediately haring off on her own) that her parents were from Half World, a purgatorial realm in which the spirits of the dead re-experience the worst trauma they had on Earth, until they can move on to the Realm of Spirit. But millennia ago, the realms were sundered, leaving the spirits in Half World to suffer eternally for no fault of their own.

Until, perhaps, an “impossible child” – a child born in Half World – can bring balance to the three worlds. Accompanied by a magical jade rat, Melanie ventures into the utterly horrific Half World to rescue her mother and the other despairing spirits.

Though this has some of the tropes of a typical quest novel, it doesn’t read much like one. It’s more of an Inferno-esque allegory, as much psychological as spiritual, on the themes of trauma and healing, the cycle of abuse and the possibility of breaking free. Melanie is an unusually realistic heroine, completely un-special apart from her parentage, who finds courage and intelligence within herself by sheer force of necessity and love.

I’d classify Half World as horror-fantasy. Most of the novel is set in Half World, which is full of the spirits of suicides endlessly killing themselves and ruled by a truly disgusting villain. There’s also a heaping helping of body horror. Melanie’s jade rat companion and magic Eight Ball don’t do all that much to leaven the mood. If you haven’t read this already, I suggest reading the prologue and introduction (yes, there’s one of each) to get a sense of the tone and content.

This book made for an unusual reading experience for me, simultaneously compelling and repelling. This isn’t a comment on its quality; it’s well-written and thoughtful, and also extremely disturbing and gross. Half World is convincingly otherworldly, a spiritual hell made up of horrors which can’t exist in real life and horrors which absolutely do. Just the concept of endlessly repeating your greatest trauma in life – and not even as a punishment, but because of an inexplicable natural disaster – creeped me out.

The ending is redemptive and moving, but I can’t say that I exactly enjoyed reading the rest of the book. As literature, it’s excellent. It was just too dark, disturbing, and grotesque for my taste.

As a physical object, this is an exceptionally well-designed book, with a gorgeous cover and ukiyoe-esque black and white interior illustrations by Jillian Tamaki (Skim)

Half World

Please link your review, if you have one, or discuss in comments. Spoilers are welcome in comments and need not be disguised or talked around.


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