Halfmen of O by Maurice Gee

Halfmen of O book cover
Rating 7.0/10
Not half bad

The Halfmen of O was a book I distinctly remember reading and enjoying when I was 10 or so. The book concerns two children from New Zealand, Susan Ferris and Nicholas Quinn, who find themselves transported to the world of O where they must confront the terrifying Halfmen, a race of humans who, through the misuse of magic have split the evil half of their nature from the good.

Oddly enough, I found that I could remember comparatively little of the plot or characters in the story, but had very clear memories of the book's principle landscapes and the world of O. This is because of something that will become evident from the first paragraph, Maurice Gee's wonderfully captivating style:

"Our story begins on Loadstone Creak one summer holiday; at least Nick's part in it starts there. Susan had been involved for the whole of her life though she did not know it, and Jimmy Jaspers with his nose for an easy dollar had been working for the Halfies since he came to the creak in Spring, they found him when he started fossicking around the gorge. But he had only glimpsed their world and though he thought he had the Halfies sized up and knew they were as tough as old boots, he didn't have a glimmer of their real nature. He thought he would be more than a match for them. As Brand was to say, Jimmy did not really understand evil."
Taken from Chapter 1: The Message

Gee writes with a bright and intensive style that is both arresting and poetic, yet never overly dragged out, whether describing his characters, the fantastic vistas of the world of O, the evil Halfmen or even moments of high drama and action.

One of my major issues with a lot of children's books is that there is far too much a feeling of safety, a feeling that nothing bad can be allowed to happen. Gee's style however is so intensive it gives urgency to many scenes and a profound sense of immediacy to the action. This style indeed often makes up for inequities in Gee's plot. For example, the Halfmen, such as the brutal Odo Cring and his master the sinister magician Otis Claw, are not complex villains, Gee seems to interpret "evil" as simply being no holds barred sadistic, enjoying pain and killing for its own sake and grabbing after power. However, the Halfmen are so profoundly scary in their abrupt, murderous brutality that this characterization works, there is no "I will keep you alive and tell you all of my plans" style of pantomime villainy about them at all, when they threaten to kill principle characters you get the distinct idea these threats are not idle.

My major issue with the book, despite Gee's wonderful style is that the plot feels rather as if it is run on rails. Susan receives a message pertaining to a birthmark on her arm, which turns out to be a trap. She is then kidnapped and taken to O by Odo Cring who plans to give her over to his master, Otis Claw.

During this kidnap, Gee is too clever an author to have Susan be a completely helpless captive of Cring, and highlights her bravery in both trying to escape and sabotage Cring’s efforts given how profoundly unpleasant Cring is. However, the instant she is rescued from Cring by Nick and a group of firry elf like creatures, the Woodlanders, things suddenly tail off and feel far less inhospitable and alien. Susan and Nick meet the two Woodlanders, Brand and Breeze, who accompany them for the rest of the book on their journey to collect two mystical objects, the good and evil halves and reunite them, thus restoring the nature of the human people of O.

To me, the appearance of this pair of surrogate parents marked a distinct down swing in the quality of the book, turning the excursion to the planet of O from a dangerous journey across an alien world to a day trip complete with tour guides, a fact only enhanced by the lack of actual danger that anyone besides the Halfmen presents along the journey.

Also, while I can accept that the evil Halfmen by definition are one dimensional (although it is a shame we don't meet many good Halfmen), Gee unfortunately seems to treat all the races of O the same way, as possessing a universal racial nature. Even though the Woodlanders Brand and Breeze are major characters, they don't really give us an idea of what Woodlanders are like other than universally helpful and forest dwelling.

Fortunately, since Gee is such a supremely gifted stylist, even though in practical terms the danger to the characters often seems nominal there are still several places where it feels that there is a real sense of jeopardy, like Susan's trip into the lightless world of the Stonefolk who, though supposedly allies, are disturbingly alien.

The book's conclusion is suitably epic, indeed I was very pleased that Otis Claw more than lives up to his reputation when we meet him, although since Brand and Breeze are lost in an incident with hang gliders and for once Susan and Knick feel like they are on their own resources, I do wish the concluding section had been slightly longer.

In terms of its characters, I rather felt Gee cops out a little with Susan and Knick. With his usual stylistic care, Gee introduces both in the first chapter very believably and immediately as two cousins who try to get on with each other because their parents expect it, but don't really have much in common given that Nick is a city boy with an interest in things like Aeroplanes and Susan is a quiet, introspective girl from a country farm. Unfortunately however, one chapter in Gee suddenly has Nick realize that he thinks of Susan like a sister, and from then on their relationship is universally amicable. There is an attempt later on to suggest that when Susan is carrying the two mystical halves of O she is somewhat affected by them, but this didn't seem to cause any real tension in their characters. While Brand and Breeze remain so one note helpful companions they barely register at all. Fortunately, the third principle human character, Jimmy Jaspers, is quite another matter. At turns menacing, greedy, irritating and noble, Gee creates a highly varied picture of a man who stands at the boarders between good and evil, which in a book whose principle villains are universally evil Halfmen is a wonderful contrast, though it is a shame only one character got this attention to detail.

The Halfmen of O has a lot to recommend it, especially its beautiful style and wonderfully realized world, and while it has some distinct flaws that probably mean it's not up to the standard of Cooper, Garner or Lewis when it comes to stories about children visiting fantastic worlds, even if it sometimes does feel more like a package tour than a dangerous journey the world of O itself is highly worth exploring, for the amazing landscape and compelling language alone.

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