Half World by Hiromi Goto (thoughts)
I love urban fantasy, and I especially love when it incorporates myths/legends/theologies from other cultures. So I couldn’t resist Japanese-Canadian authors Hiromi Goto’s Half World, which is structured around East Asian philosophy. The title refers to Half World, a kind of halfway house for souls between our world/human life and the realm of the spirit. In the usual course of things, souls spend time their purifying themselves of their human experience before moving on. Unfortunately, one soul has become so twisted and powerful he’s taken over & frozen each of the realms in place, and he spends his time torturing the souls in Half World.
Against that background, Melanie Takami is born: she’s lived in Toronto all her life, with her single mother struggling to support them. But after her mom disappears, she learns her parents are actually souls from Half World and to save them from eternal torture, she’ll have to go to Half World herself and destroy the twisted soul who’s ruined everything.
As you expect, this is a dark novel, really as much horror as fantasy, and as such I didn’t completely fall in love. I don’t have much stomach for gruesomeness, and Goto’s descriptions of the thing Melanie sees and endures in Half World called to mind Tibetan paintings I’ve seen of Buddhist demons: intricate and lovely in execution, which provides all the more contrast to the disturbing subjects. That being said, I did still really like it: the characters are all strong and believable, even the secondary ones, Melanie’s quest moves at a good pace, and Goto’s incredibly good at bringing worlds to life. And while the book is horror, it is not unremittingly sad or violent: there are little things that allowed me to keep going and really connect with it (including jade animal pendants that come to life!).
My favourite scenes were actually the bits set in Toronto, the book ends to Melanie’s adventure. I was moved by Goto’s depiction of Melanie’s life living on the fringes, with her mother in the kind of poverty that means one or both of them regularly go hungry, while at the same time Melanie tries to keep up appearances in front of her classmates. Also, Ms. Wei is in those scenes! She’s my favourite character, and I love Goto for making her not only a strong elderly woman but also a lesbian! Yay for an acknowledgement that not everyone in the world is heterosexual! I suspect most bibliophiles will instantly connect with Ms. Wei, who is a deep lover of books as well.
Another of the book’s strengths is Melanie herself. She’s not your usual teenage protagonist. She’s not particularly smart or athletic or determined or happy. I suspect if her teachers were more likely to call her mopey than feisty. And that makes her journey all the more powerful.
I’m not sure I’ve sufficiently conveyed just how good this book is. Goto writing is excellent: strong, imaginative, deft, she’s able to go from funny to touching to blood curdling and back at the drop of a hat. If Half World was a little too horrific for me to fall straight in love with, it was certainly well worth reading, and has made me want to read the rest of Goto’s work sooner rather than later. I recommend Half World, and I imagine Sandman fans will be especially happy with it.