Book Review: Half Sick of Shadows

Half Sick of Shadows
by Laura Sebastian
448 pages
Expected publication: July 6, 2021, by Ace

Everyone knows the modern story of King Arthur: The hidden Prince Arthur reappears from obscurity to claim his father’s throne, but to prove his lineage he must draw a magical sword from a block of stone- a feat no one but the rightful heir can accomplish. When Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, the young prince takes the throne of Camelot and rules over a golden age of peace. But he is ultimately betrayed by those closest to him, and so the great kingdom of Camelot falls, and King Arthur dies with it. His body is taken to the mystical island of Avalon, there to sleep until he is needed once more.

The story of the Lady of Shalott is less well-known among the myriad stories of the Arthurian expanded universe, and the version Sebastian draws upon in this case is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1832 poem, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, in which a young woman is locked away in a tower. She is cursed to always weave a magic web upon her loom and to only look at the world using the mirror in her room. She is content to while the days away like this until she sees a newlywed couple and declares, “I am half sick of shadows”. Soon enough, she sees the handsome Sir Lancelot in her mirror and decides that, curse or no, she will forsake her weaving and go out to see the world. And so the Lady of Shalott leaves her tower, takes a boat down the river, and beholds the kingdom of Camelot before she dies.

In Laura Sebastian’s adult fantasy debut, Half Sick of Shadows, Elaine of Astalot, aka Elaine Shalott is given a chance to tell her story. She is an oracle who’s spent the past several years learning about magic on the mystical island of Avalon, where she, Arthur, his half-sister Morgana, Guinevere, and Lancelot run free among the fey (or fay), use their magic freely, wear whatever they want, and are free to have sex with with whomever they want. Until one day, King Uther Pendragon dies, and Arthur is sent to the court of Camelot to take up his father’s throne. But Arthur is not the only contender for the crown. His half-brother Mordred also has a strong claim, and the sorcerer Merlin backs Mordred and Mordred’s wife Morgause over Arthur. To prove his worthiness, Arthur must accomplish a set of impossible-seeming tasks. And so he, Elaine, Morgana, and Lancelot set out together to aide Arthur. But for the women of the group, achieving it may be as much punishment as victory, for the stifling court of Camelot is not friendly to women, and has made magic illegal. Elaine must choose whether or not she will stay with Arthur, or if she will help Morgana keep her powers, for Elaine has seen visions of a future where Morgana betrays her half-brother– to his death, and the end of Camelot.

It is clear that Laura Sebastian is familiar with modern Arthurian stories. And it’s clear that she knows that you, the reader, also know the modern Arthurian stories. And she knows that you know that she knows all about them. With that in mind, she lays out a story where the reader is inescapably aware that things are going to end very poorly for the charismatic Prince Arthur. Sebastian also finds it necessary to explain precisely how all the characters met on Avalon, and so constantly interrupts the narrative to provide a series of flashbacks that do little but prove that, with a slight costume change, the main characters would fit right in to a modern teen television drama.

But just in case having myriad flashbacks wasn’t enough to distract from Elaine’s present-day story, the narrative never lets the reader forget that she is an oracle with many, many visions of the future. And so the book is replete with flash-forwards (written in future tense), wherein Elaine describes how things could and will go wrong, either during Arthur’s quest or far in the future if/when he becomes king. In all those visions, she sees Morgana betraying Arthur to his ultimate death. And then Elaine does next to nothing to prevent all of this. And so, instead of a story presenting a young woman slightly unmoored from time, the reader gets a story so intent on its past and the future that it neglects the story it is actually telling. The characters banter, argue, and banter again before bemoaning the fact that most of them are voluntarily doing what they’re doing. A climactic battle scene provides a confused perspective on feminism and a slippery grasp of politics, but does show that Sebastian has at least a passing familiarity with Margot Adler’s 1979 study of paganism and witchcraft in America, Drawing Down the Moon.

Feminism is also meant to be at the center of Half Sick of Shadows, though Morgana, the Strong Female Character, is more upset about being expected to wear her hair up, wear a corset, and have tea with the other women of the court than she is about real gender equity. Because, apparently, having to style one’s hair, wear underwear, and be polite to one’s guests is the sign of living under a tyrannical patriarchy. Morgana is also upset about magic being illegal, but magic is illegal for everyone, not just women. So where Sebastian could have made a statement about female empowerment, women lifting each other up, or about powerful men listening to women’s advice, Sebastian chose instead to focus on the old chestnut that Victorian corsets (otherwise known to women of the late 1800s as “everyday underwear”) are symbols of oppression.

Arthurian retellings have been an evergreen subject over the past 1200 years, and especially so in the past decade. In Half Sick of Shadows, Laura Sebastian attempts to let Elaine of Astalot, the Lady of Shalott reclaim her story and provide a fantastical Pre-Raphaelite-esque tale of love, destiny, and betrayal. Instead, we get an anachronistic mishmash of elements from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’, and BBC’s Merlin that is half sick of its own story– so much so that it would rather dwell on its past and future than keep its mind on where it is. The result is a bland tale of a group of young people who would rather not grow up, because that involves making difficult decisions and facing the consequences of their actions.

Thank you to NetGalley and Ace for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Half Sick of Shadows

  1. Well, my first reaction when I saw it was a story of the Lady of Shalott was excitement and a memory of one of my favorite pre-Raphaelite paintings by John William Waterhouse. It’s too bad it didn’t live up to the potential of the subject matter, and to hear it compared to a modern teen television drama is really disappointing. As popular as Arthurian retellings are I’m not sure I’ve read many, perhaps just T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Merlyn and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. I do have a copy of Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory that I’ve been meaing to try. Have you read that, and if so what did you think of it?

  2. I was intrigued, too, when I first saw it, but also kind of wary. But I think I approached it with reasonable expectations, and it failed to meet even those.

    I’ve read part of Morte d’Arthur, but not the whole thing, and that was a long time ago. My favorite Arthurian retelling is Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy. It feels like it’s right in the midst of 6th century Britain, and is so beautifully written. There’s also the Mabinogion, if you want to go way back. It’s one of the original collections of stories about Arthur, and can get pretty funny at times. I read this one on audiobook a couple of summers ago.

  3. Thanks! I put Mary Stewart’s books in my wish list and I wasn’t familiar with the Mabinogion but found it at LibriVox so I downloaded it to give it a listen.

  4. Pingback: June Summary, July Preview | Traveling in Books

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