By Lev Grossman
March 6, 2014

One of the rules for a state-of-the-art young-adult novel these days is that it has to have a lot of rules. In Half Bad, the British writer Sally Green’s first novel, they go as follows: England is secretly inhabited by a lot of witches, and every witch has a supernatural power called a Gift. There are two sorts of witches, Black and White, and they’re at war. Our hero, Nathan, is the son of a White Witch and a Black one. As such, he’s a violation of the rules, regarded with fear and suspicion. This is a darker, less playful world than J.K. Rowling’s, more Hunger Games than Harry Potter, but Nathan is an appealing narrator–he’s funny and clever and stoic, and his voice makes Half Bad highly entertaining and dangerously addictive. Nathan has the essential qualities of an adolescent hero: the whole world is out to get him, but he’s too smart to be fooled by its hypocritical facade. (If that doesn’t describe how you felt as a teenager, you deserve a Nobel Prize for mental health.) What he learns is that just being White doesn’t make you a good person and being Black doesn’t make you evil. “You will have a powerful Gift,” his brother says, “but it’s how you use it that will show you to be good or bad.”

–LEV GROSSMAN

This appears in the March 17, 2014 issue of TIME.

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