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Half World by Hiromi Goto (thoughts)

November 12, 2013

Half World by Hiromi Goto
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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2013 10:51 am

    Great to see you back.This sounds really interesting.I’ll have to add it to my tbr list.

  2. November 12, 2013 1:25 pm

    oo Sounds interesting! Nice to see you reviewing again!

  3. November 12, 2013 8:11 pm

    How gruesome, do you think? Compared to Sandman? If Sandman is a ten and the scale goes to fifteen? I’m asking because Sandman is right about on the edge of what I can deal with, and it’s only within the safe realm because I already really really like Neil Gaiman.

    • November 12, 2013 8:33 pm

      Hmmm. Ok, so I only read the first 2 or 3 volumes of Sandman, because the 1st one tramautised me so much I never really got over it. And I finished Half World, although there were points where I contemplated stopping. So maybe a 9? But not unrelentingly 9. Just, the worst scenes are definitely an 8 or 9. On the other hand it’s a normal book so you don’t have to see it illustrated which I think is a large part of what killed Sandman for me (I really don’t get along with traditional comic style illustrations). So maybe an 8 for that reason. I will say the violence isn’t usually sexual, although it’s been a long time since I read this so I can’t promise there are no rape implications. Just that my general impression was of horror and gruesomeness but not sexual violence. It didn’t give me any actual nightmares (unlike Sandman) but I did avoid reading it right before bedtime.

      Could I get any more wishy washy? It was definitely right at the edge of my tolerance but Goto is such a wonderful author who plays with such intriguing ideas that I stuck it out and I’m glad I did so. If she wrote a sequel I’d read it but I’d wait until I was in a strong, positive mental spot. Not a comfort read!

      • November 13, 2013 5:23 pm

        I completely understand what you mean, but I do feel that the intensity is vitally important to the story. What a testament to her skill that she can provoke such a powerful response: I am wincing, just thinking back to that one scene.

        There is a companion novel to Half-World, and I think you would love both novels all-the-more for reading it. I can’t say anymore than that, because the power of the duo’s storytelling rests in an idea which is all-the-more powerful for being discovered in the context of the second story. But I will say that my reasons for loving Half World were much the same as yours (as you’ve described them here) but my reasons for loving Darkest Light were quite different. An author who can draw a reader in from startlingly different directions? That’s deliciously appealing, isn’t it?

        Whenever you do get around to anything else she’s written, I’ll be pleased to hear your thoughts! Hope you are keeping well as can be.

      • November 13, 2013 9:22 pm

        Oh yes, none of it was gratuitous! I hope I didn’t give that impression. Thnx for telling me about Darkest Light: my library doesn’t have it but I’ll have to ILL. :)

      • November 13, 2013 9:23 pm

        Boo, I just checked and no US libraries have Darkest Light. Suspect it hasn’t been released here yet. :/

  4. dastevensish permalink
    November 13, 2013 11:27 am

    Oooh, this sounds fun! Hmmm, maybe “fun” isn’t the perfect word. Anyway, it definitely sounds like something I would enjoy.

    • November 13, 2013 11:59 am

      I definitely thought of both you and Annie with this one! :)

  5. November 14, 2013 10:00 am

    How infuriating that you can’t get the second volume in the US. It’s pubbed via Penguin’s Razorbill imprint in Canada, so I assumed US availability, whereas some of her other fiction has been published by indie Canlit presses. If I ever come across a copy in my second-hand-shop rambles, I will keep you in mind. It fleshes out the story brilliantly.

  6. aartichapati permalink
    November 15, 2013 9:42 pm

    Wow, you had a very different reaction to this novel than Ana and I did! I admit the gruesomeness was too much for me. I felt like Goto described that aspect of the novel to the detriment of everything else. I found the characters not fleshed out at all. Though I too really liked Miss Wei :-)

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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