Freeman, Firstman, made the Motherstone, and laid the Halves on it, and put Humankind in balance… Light and dark contended and held each other in a deep embrace. Yes, Susan, that is it, you have the mark on you. There on your wrist. See how the light bends into the dark, see how dark leans into light. They hold each other, good and evil. And see, if you look close, in the light there is a spot of dark, and in the dark there is a spot of light.
Growing up, I tended to read NZ teen fiction more dutifully than passionately. My mother was a librarian and a driving force in the early days of the New Zealand Post Book Awards. You could always tell NZ teen lit in the school library because there was a silver fern sticker on the spine. I did not go to it except when desperate because, acknowledging a couple of extremely good exceptions—Tessa Duder and Fleur Beale, for instance—books for Kiwi teens tended to be worthy, earnest, and dreary. They were always set in Wellington or Auckland, and they were always about your friend who died, or the summer you lost your virginity, or the summer you lost your virginity to your friend who died, and at the end everyone moved to Australia.
One of the reasons I think these books seemed very tedious in my teens is because, by comparison, the NZ kid’s lit of my youth was unremittingly bananas. The Halfmen of O is not simply an example of this: it is the granddaddy of bewildering NZ kids’ fantasy.
The Halfmen of O is set in the South Island in the 1980s, on a farm and creek near the Aorere River. It begins with a twelve-year-old boy called Nick, an Auckland city slicker who is dissatisfied with spending his holiday with his dreamy and disconnected cousin Susan. This is a portal fantasy, and the mystical Susan is our real protagonist: Gee’s decision to focalise any of the book through Nick is a very odd one. Susan is a cipher at best and extraordinarily dull at worst, but cousin Nick is extraordinarily dull at best and D.O.A. at worst. Susan has a strange birthmark, as in the opening quote, which is very obviously a yellow and plum yin-yang. Gee’s works are often Dao-influenced in flavour, characterised here not simply by Susan’s gaudy tat but by the book’s concern with balance and wholeness.
Right from the start not many of the characters are very textured, not even our heroes, which is perhaps a design choice—a repeating thematic of the O series is one-dimensionality, and having little choice about being fully good or fully bad; but for Susan, who is “mostly good with a little bit of bad,” read “mostly not very interesting.” Nick takes this further by not ever being interesting at all. The book is saved by its gorgeous sensory writing and by best character, “mostly bad with a little bit of good” Jimmy Jaspers, the coarse antihero of the trilogy. Imagine Lee Scoresby, but amoral old garbage. He hijacks the narrative in a very real way from page 3 and doesn’t let it go:
An old man was wading in the stream, bent almost double, sweeping the bottom with a gadget like a vacuum cleaner. He was wearing boots and thick trousers, held up by a knotted piece of twine. He had no shirt but a woollen singlet that might once have been pink. […] He was an ugly old man: a big rough nose, coloured with veins, a drooping lower lip, all wet with spit and yellow with tobacco, and loose skin under his chin, like a turkey’s wattles.
I also dressed like this for much of my early twenties, but I digress. Nick is intimidated by Jimmy Jaspers into luring Susan down to him—this might have been to give Nick a more interesting role in the manner of an Edmund Pevensie or a Eustace Scrubb, but he never undergoes a distinct moral change, he’s just sort of… there. Jimmy is in the employ of the forces of Otis Claw, Odo Cling and the titular halfmen of O, and he forces Susan to smell an awful drug (“better’n French perfoom”) that sends her on a hallucinogenic psychojourney:
It was like being sucked into a dream of red lights streaming in water; then of going deeper, until the light was water, all colour gone, until water was mud, jet black, and mud had turned to earth and earth to stone, and stone was everything, stone was the world and life, stone was air, stone was past and future, stone was the screaming sound she tried to make. And then—before that last tiny consciousness faded away (and she held on to it desperately, for it was all she had)—the whole process went into reverse, there was a painful climbing back, through stone, through earth, through mud, through light and water. It was like being born. It was terrible, and glorious, coming back to life. Red lights streamed again, spinning like whirlpools. The sucking was reversed. She was being thrust up, she was spinning up the walls of a giant funnel into the world after being sucked hungrily into the stomach of death. She screamed with relief.
I still look on that paragraph happily and think, I read that when I was seven! I read that and nobody thought it was weird to make me read it! We are poorer if we do not keep writing books for children that include acid-trip rebirthing sequences.
Back in New Zealand, Nick feels kind of bad and huffs the drug bottle, which also sends him to O, and we don’t hear any more from him for at least a chapter, which is top.
In the land of O everything is grey and dreary, and Susan is delivered into the hands of Odo Cling and his halfmen Deathguards, who are grey and unsurprisingly villainous. Jimmy Jaspers demands the money owed for his act of child kidnapping, and is dispatched abruptly by the Halfmen and left for dead. Susan is tied with a rope, tries to escape and is lashed with whips, and is forced on a long and gruelling hike towards the city of the Halfmen. I am interested in how casually grim it is to read: the stakes are high for Susan, who is very clearly threatened with death by strangling if she tries to leg it again.
Susan escapes by the intervention of the Woodlanders and, in a shockin’ twist, her cousin Nick. Nick has gone through the world’s easiest volte-face and now likes Susan and is boring, rather than not liking Susan while being boring. The Woodlanders are hobbits in that they are short, furry and benevolent, but they are elves in that they talk epigrammatically about Mother Forest and love beetle a green spangle a brace of frogs ect ect. They’re somewhat more nuanced than the classic D&D woodland elf, however: names like Breeze and Brand sit alongside Verna and Walt, and they skew animalistic and use contractions. They bathe Susan’s whip wounds and hustle her into the forest on the understanding that they’re on the run: death is about eight hours off due to the tracking ability of the Halfmen’s bloodcats, ketchup-coloured creatures who will feature prominently in later books. Fortunately, Breeze and Brand fix the ill-effects of Susan’s brush with the Halfmen’s drug by finding a rare flower called Shy for her. Gee’s writing is, as ever, at its peak in sensory detail:
With an uncertain smile, she lifted the flower to her nose and breathed in. For a moment nothing happened, she smelt nothing. Then something seemed to break in the flower. A waft of perfume rose about her face. It was cold as snow and delicate as a breeze, sweet yet astringent, like lemon blossom. […] Susan gave a cry of wonder and delight. Wildwood stood before her in its colours. The sun rolled yellow in the sky. The trees were like green and golden cities. Bright birds fluttered in their upper levels. The stream was transparent blue, the grass was green, and berries bright as lipstick clustered on the bushes. She looked at her palm – her own pink palm – and the Shy lay there, bright blue as the sky.
From this point on, the story resolves into a sort of reverse Golden Fleece narrative: rather than going on an adventure to find the Golden Fleece, Susan is the Golden Fleece, and the object is to get her into the Darkland and restore balance. If they fail, the Halfmen will pump toxic “Halfman air” through the passage between worlds and invade New Zealand, in a distinctly Tolkienesque allegory for industrialisation.
It’s all pretty obvious. Susan goes on a magical journey to get the Halves that match her birthmark back, and retrieves them from the earth and the sky, represented by the Stonefolk in the Underworld and the Birdmen at Sheercliff. She learns about why she has been chosen to restore balance to O, and it’s not really that stunning a revelation (spoiler: it was coincidence). What is unquestionably original and fresh is, number one, best boy Jimmy Jaspers, who joins Susan on her quest under amusing circumstances and leavens the whole sordid business by being relentlessly coarse, venal, and an unstoppable Kiwi bloke: it’s like having Wal Footrot join the Fellowship of the Ring. Number two is connected to number one: Gee’s writing is relentlessly hallucinatory, sensory and evocative while being simultaneously hard and exact. This is obvious in Jimmy’s dialogue:
“I reckon she’s right. You ain’t seen me use an axe, ‘ave yer younker? I won the underhand chop six years running at the Fells Bush A & P Show. Let’s get up there an’ cut them pretty pollies a bit o’firewood.”
but also in the rest of the novel:
Soon Susan felt her ears go pop. She wondered how high they were going. Wise One was far below, tiny as a sparrow. The crater was a dent scooped by a teaspoon, and Morninghall a shrunken old potato.
Yes, Wise One and Morninghall make me think of knock-off elves, but although Gee steers perilously close to the genre of knock-off elfdom his writing is simply too clean and unsentimental. His practical Kiwi-flavoured fantasy is even more overt in books like Under the Mountain and The World Around The Corner, both of which predated The Halfmen of O by a couple of years, but it is a running theme throughout.
The book is also nuanced in ways that bring up significant questions—like what is the New Zealand presented, and which New Zealand and whose? What is the NZ of Jimmy Jaspers versus what is the NZ represented by O?—but I’ll be real with you, I dropped out of my university degree when I was nineteen because I was too busy collecting Generation 3 My Little Pony figurines, and I’m hoping someone else will answer those questions for me.
Gee is a regular Kiwi fiction recommendation for the English NCEA certification. He remains a stalwart of New Zealand fiction. The Halfmen of O is enjoying new releases, though the new covers are not remotely a patch on the old ones. The latest cover I have now features a girl squinting solemnly into the middle distance while a yin-yang eats Nick. I don’t even want to see any updates for the cover of the sequel, The Priests of Ferris, as they got it right the first two times:
I’m not sure this book’s popularity will ever again reach the fevered heights it did in 1998, when it was regularly put on as a school play: that was the year it was performed by the local intermediate school I didn’t go to, and one of my friends got to be Marna, the saintly Halfie who drops a hill on everyone and dies. I was so beset by jealous rage I got my foot stuck in a crack and ripped myself in twain.
But as a Kiwi, and as a childhood Gee devotee: I still recommend The Halfmen of O without a qualm. New Zealand fantasy fiction will never be this mad again. And no side character will ever reach the dizzying heights of my axe-wielding best boy, Jimmy Jaspers. Read it.
Tamsyn Muir is a horror, fantasy and sci-fi author whose works have appeared in Nightmare Magazine, F&SF, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, and Clarkesworld. Her fiction has received nominations for the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award. A Kiwi, she has spent most of her life in Howick, New Zealand, with time living in Waiuku and central Wellington. She currently lives and teaches in Oxford, in the United Kingdom. Gideon the Ninth is her first novel.