I finally read this Kiwi classic: Gee’s “The Halfmen of O”

The Halfmen of OThe Halfmen of O by Maurice Gee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember everyone raving about this book when I was in form 1 and 2, and thinking, “I should read that.” Well, I finally made it, 16 years later. Aged 27, I can now say I have read another of New Zealand’s classic children’s novels, and I can see why everyone liked it so much.

It was published in 1982, so it was old even when my peers were reading in the mid 90s, but despite a few details that date it, it is a timeless story (as most fantasy should be).

The balance of good and evil is at stake when Susan is tricked and forced into entering the world of O, and her cousin Nick follows her to help her escape from danger. It’s a fast-paced book despite the days of hiking the characters do, and it is filled with wonderfully bizarre characters, from the woodlanders to the stonemen, the people of the sea and the birdmen. I love the nickname “Mixies” given to normal humans by the Halfies (or Halfmen) – it reminds me of the word “moxie” which is fantastic and should be a part of of everybody’s vocabulary.

I had to look up ‘carbide’ and I imagine any child reading it these days would have to as well, and I really wish I knew what it smells like, because it is mentioned as an olfactory sense so often in the book (albeit a nasty one), that I feel it kind of sums up the whole experience of O.

I definitely recommend this book to all young readers (aged 8 or 9+). As I said, it was popular among 11 and 12 year-olds in the mid 90s, and I hope it still is. And even though it is a fantasy novel, the fantasy is set against the reality of a Golden Bay farm, lending the book a sense of ‘Kiwiness’ that I appreciated.

And here come my negative thoughts. Why didn’t it get 5 stars? Well, maybe it’s conditioning from the hundreds of books I’ve read in my life, and I’m well aware that this is a children’s book, but it didn’t feel deep enough. I wanted more about the inner workings of the characters – the protagonists, the antagonists, the creatures on the sidelines. I wanted more description of the places and characters. I wanted to be able to see them in my mind (I got the beginning of a sense of this in Morninghall, and in the Throat of the Underworld, but I wanted more still). Is this a result of watching too many movies? of a diminishing imagination? or just the fact that I’m an adult reading a kids book?

Anyway, there you go. The Halfmen of O is a fun and exciting children’s fantasy adventure that I’m glad I finally read.

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