Melanie Tamaki is a lonely girl shunned by her peers: she loves books but she’s not very good at school, she has no special talents to speak of, she’s fat, and her single, alcoholic mother loves her but is neglectful at best. Her only friend is an eccentric old woman named Ms. Wei who runs a convenience store. She’s not exactly the kind of person you’d expect to be the heroine in a young adult fantasy novel. But, lo and behold, it is Melanie who is the star of Vancouver-based queer author Hiromi Goto’s Half World. And in addition to the unexpected protagonist, Half World has a lot of surprises for you.
Let’s back up a bit: Half World is set in Vancouver (with lovingly specific details of East Vancouver, by the way), where, one day, Melanie comes home from school and discovers that her mother is missing. As it turns out, her mother has not been taken somewhere unknown, but has been taken back to where she came from, a place called Half World. Melanie, of course, sets out to rescue her beloved mother on what turns into an epic quest that has significance not just for her small family, but for the entire universe.
Goto wisely begins the novel with a helpful prologue to introduce the concepts of the three worlds, or ”realms,” that the book is based on: the Realm of the Flesh, the Realm of the Spirit, and Half World. I’m certainly no expert on either, but the concepts Goto has taken to construct this intricate, fantastical world are clearly inspired by Japanese mythology and Buddhist thought, especially the perspective of needing to let go of earthly attachments before moving onto the spirit world. The idea is that in Melanie’s world, the traditional balance of the realms has been upset. Can Melanie put things right, things that have been wrong for centuries?
One thing that surprised me was how dark this novel was: dark as in Melanie has to contemplate biting off her own pinkie finger as passage from one world to another. Yikes! So while this is written at a fairly low reading level, looking like it’s aimed at young teens, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. I found it disturbing at some parts, while just deliciously creepy at others. The villain, Mr. Glueskin, for example, gives you the heebie jeebies: teetering on the edge of in/sanity, he’s a literally spineless mush of glue-like substance in the shape of a human who love to torture and swallow his victims whole. Some of the people trapped in Half World, doomed to repeat their earthly mistakes, are doing things like committing suicide over and over and drinking themselves into such a stupor as to not recognize their own children.
On a lighter note, one pleasant surprise was that Ms. Wei, the elder and mentor to Melanie who helps her get into Half World, turns out to be a lesbian! And it’s totally not a big deal! When was the last time you read a book where the old wise kick-ass mentor was a Chinese-Canadian lesbian? Probably never. Ms. Wei also has some pretty sweet tricks up her sleeve to pass on to Melanie, including a talking rat necklace made of jade.
Another thing I wasn’t expecting was the novel to be dotted with evocative illustrations by the amazing Jillian Tamaki (whose works with her cousin Mariko Tamaki Skim and This One Summer are rightfully famous). I mean, it says on the cover that there are illustrations, but it’s just that because Half World isn’t a graphic novel, every time a drawing appeared on the page it was a welcome interruption from the words. They’re pretty great, as the example on the left shows. That’s not Ms. Wei, but someone else that Melanie meets in Half World.
The only thing I didn’t like about Half World is I felt the plot lagged a bit in the middle; this isn’t particular to Goto’s book, as I’ve felt similarly with other fantasy quest novels when the characters are in the middle of the journey, but not much is actually happening—plot or character wise—and you’re just thinking, c’mon, get to the good stuff! I imagine it must be hard to sustain the momentum of fantasy quest novels but not rush the plot, although I don’t really know how hard, since I’ve never studied fiction from that perspective!
The last quarter of the book, however, really picked up to the edge-of-your-seat, oh-my-god-what’s-gonna-happen kind of tension, which is exactly what you want from a fantasy novel. Can Melanie save the world, literally? Can she save her mom? Will she make it out of Half World alive, with all her fingers intact? You’ll have to pick Half World (and its companion Darkest Light) to find out!