Ursula Pflug's Reviews > Half World

Half World by Hiromi Goto
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Jun 20, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: books-i-ve-reviewed

The following review appeared in April 2011, in The New York Review of Science Fiction. It was part of a general discussion about several YA speculative titles published by Canadians in 2009. The entire essay appears on my Goodreads blog.

Notes on the 2010 Sunburst Award by Ursula Pflug

Chairing the Sunburst jury for the 2010 awards (for books published in 2009) coincided with leaving behind a lifelong cigarette habit. I contented myself with bits of teaching and editing and this and that. I had to prioritize it, everyone said, or the whole project would nosedive. If I didn’t write while I quit, so be it. What’s the rest of your life worth? So, in a way, the timing of the jury was a blessing. Unable to write, I could read all I wanted. Unable to really write, I drafted voluminous notes for books on my personal shortlist, especially for the YA category. I like to get more than one use out of a piece of writing when I can, and hence include below some of these notes, on occasion slightly revised. I think I drove my fellow jurors crazy. These favourites of my own all ended up not as finalists but as Honourable Mentions except for "Half World," which won the Sunburst for YA, and "Dragon Seer," which didn’t appear on any of our final lists.

Half World by Hiromi Goto

When I was a child, my mother bought my sister and me a collection of translated Japanese fairy tales accompanied by wonderful line drawings; Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations in Halfworld both recapture and modernize the feel and style of those drawings. They are a wonderful addition to the book, especially the crows. A river of birds! I have an unfinished story with that image in it, but no one runs across them! Goto’s description of what it feels like to cross, on foot, this bridge of birds in flight is so richly imagined and described; it is as if we experience it for ourselves. This is only one example of many such phantasmagoric sequences strung like brightly coloured lights the entire length of this iridescent book. Reading, I was thoroughly smitten and felt like I had known them forever, pathetic but likeable little Melanie and Jade Rat and even the magic eight ball, yet they are so startlingly new and original!

Beyond the hypnagogic wonders of the Half World setting, and the clever yet unobtrusive cosmology of its concept this is a mother-daughter story, a fact which sets the novel apart for few such are written. Most YA novels focus on peer relationships: the best friend or the crush, the best friend or the crush in spec fic often enough being a ghost or a vampire or some derivation. Goto’s stylish incendiary prose lifts Half World above the YA category; this novel crosses age boundaries and could, in spite of its teenage protagonist Melanie just as easily be categorized as a book for adults. Also, this book is full of sounds! Popping sucking gruesome sounds. In the fiction class I teach I am always admonishing my students, as all writing teachers must, to include the physical. Taste, touch, sound, smell; favour the specific over the general; vivid descriptions of the information brought to us via our senses carry the day! Most writers, however, whether student, amateur or professional, while mustering to include plenty of visual detail, a smell here, a taste there, the feel of someone’s skin or a peach or cold metal; most abandon sound entirely, unless, of course, their setting is war, a noisy locale generally.

James Grainger at the important Canadian review publication Quill and Quire said this book is too short for its content; we need more back story, need to experience more of Melanie and her Mom’s poverty and misery to properly appreciate the heroism and necessity of her quest. Could be, but it didn’t strike me as a huge omission, and the Sunburst jury gave the YA award to Halfworld.

Half World

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