Long ago, the three realms—the Realm of Flesh, the Realm of Spirit, and Half World—lived together in harmony.
Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.
Somehow, the realms were severed, leaving Half Life—the realm in which those departed from the Realm of Flesh were condemned to relive their greatest trauma over and over and over until they resolved their mortal tribulations and entered the Realm of Spirit—to devolve into despair, chaos, and perpetual pain. Only when a child is born in Half Life—an impossible thing in this realm of repetition and patterns—can the Realms be brought back into harmony. Or so the prophecy says.
Melanie Tamaki is scraping by from day to day. Her mother is frail and often ill, and the two of them live in poverty. At school, Melanie is bullied for her weight and for appearing stupid. Despite her mother’s constant illness and sadness, Melanie knows she can depend on her love. So when her mother goes missing and Melanie receives an ultimatum from a Mr. Glueskin that if she wants to find her mother, she’s going to have to go into Half World—well, there’s only one thing for Melanie to do. And a mortal in Half World is going to change everything.
I loved that from the outset, we’re giving the impression that Melanie is nowhere near equipped to be able to literate her mother. Melanie has low self-esteem, she isn’t physically fit or quick on her feet, and she’s beyond terrified at what the demands of her journey require of her. And because she doubts herself and her abilities so much, I couldn’t help but doubt her either. And she ends up proving both herself and me wrong.
At the heart of Half World is choice. The realm of Half World, severed from its connections to the other two realms, is a place of repetition and patterns which none of its inhabitants can break. The sole exception is the truly nasty creature Mr. Glueskin, who is—quite literally—a being made of white, wet, sticky glue. (As an aside, I would love to see what Half World would look like as a Studio Ghibli film—Mr. Glueskin especially is exactly the kind of villain Hayao Miyazaki would have come up with, and the realm of Half World is evocative at certain points of Spirited Away.)
Melanie, being from the Realm of Flesh and not a denizen of Half World, is the only person capable of breaking through the repetitious, unending pain and trauma. And because Melanie is a source of change, the wording of the prophecy itself gets altered due to her choices. Melanie’s Hero’s Journey is structured such that her ability to make choices at each crossroad is what gives her power. Even though Melanie has absolutely no clue what she is doing, even though she’s terrified, her choices carry great weight because she is the only being in Half World who has the freedom to choose. And what she chooses is to break the cycle of suffering.
I also really liked that the person for whom Melanie undertakes her epic quest is her mother. Despite her physical weakness, she never lets Melanie doubt how much she loves her. And it’s Melanie’s fierce trust in her mother’s love that ultimately propels her to take her first, brave steps into Half World, along with some help from unexpected allies, such as her elderly next-door neighbor Ms. Wei.
I enjoyed reading Half World. It’s a self-contained YA story that was ultimately a comforting read. It’s both a touching story about a daughter searching for her mother and a small-ish epic of setting to rights what once as broken, reconnecting three separate realms and resurrecting a cycle of balance and harmony.