516tu0CkmML._SL160_“No magic words, no cure-all potion, no ultimate key that unlocked the prize door, no sorcerer’s sword or special super latent power inside her waiting to burst free to save herself and her mother’s life and everyone else in all three Realms. Everything hinged on choices. Her choices.”

I found Half World by Hiromi Goto thanks to the Down the Rabbit Hole page (alternate name: Girls Underground!) on TVtropes. And so glad I did, because not only is it a textbook GU story, but a truly unique and often disturbing one at that. The otherworld here is frequently compared to a Hieronymous Bosch painting, just to give an idea of the visceral horrors involved. And the adversary, the disgustingly named Glueskin, is thoroughly shudder-inducing.

Melanie is 14 and lives with her mother, who is loving but almost like a shadow of herself, barely there. One day Melanie’s mother disappears, and as she sets off in pursuit, she discovers the dark and tragic backstory of her existence – that her parents came from another world, the Half World, a realm that exists for souls to work out their issues before becoming spirits. Melanie’s pregnant mother had escaped but now the evil Glueskin has sucked her back in, threatening everything she holds dear. Helped along the way by a kindly grocer and her magical rat (who is sometimes a jade amulet), Melanie enters the Half World to rescue her mother.

While one of her companions appears to betray her, Melanie still ends up finding the adversary and her mother – and also discovering the story behind the Realms, and why she herself has the power to heal them all. She must shake her mother out of the trance she’s been put in, and somehow defeat the slimy Glueskin who has everyone there in his thrall (which she does in a wonderfully practical and inventive way). Not only does she triumph over her adversary, she transforms him into the very thing that will save the worlds.

One thing I found to be an extra nice touch – Melanie encounters the common GU trap of almost forgetting herself on the way back to her home…. after defeating the adversary, when most stories just wrap everything up in a neat bow. It’s refreshing to see a story acknowledge that sometimes the return journey can be just as treacherous.