Book: “Half Sick of Shadows” by Laura Sebastian
Publishing Info: Ace, July 2021
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: Everyone knows the legend. Of Arthur, destined to be a king. Of the beautiful Guinevere, who will betray him with his most loyal knight, Lancelot. Of the bitter sorceress, Morgana, who will turn against them all. But Elaine alone carries the burden of knowing what is to come–for Elaine of Shalott is cursed to see the future.
On the mystical isle of Avalon, Elaine runs free and learns of the ancient prophecies surrounding her and her friends–countless possibilities, almost all of them tragic.
When their future comes to claim them, Elaine, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Morgana accompany Arthur to take his throne in stifling Camelot, where magic is outlawed, the rules of society chain them, and enemies are everywhere. Yet the most dangerous threats may come from within their own circle.
As visions are fulfilled and an inevitable fate closes in, Elaine must decide how far she will go to change fate–and what she is willing to sacrifice along the way.
Review: I’ve had a fairly sketchy experience of “King Arthur” re-tellings. But my most recent example, Kiersten White’s “Camelot Rising” series, has been excellent all around, so I was primed to jump in for another go at the topic! “Half Sick of Shadows” was also billed as a feminist reimaging of the tale while also incorporating the story from “The Lady of Shallot.” Color me intrigued.
Growing up surrounded by magic and her friends, Elaine’s life should be full of joy and wonder. However, she knows what is to come, and it’s almost all tragic. Gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see the future, Elaine’s view of the present is always tinged to be seen through the lens of what is to come. Slowly, slowly the pieces begin to fall in place as their roles begin to solidify, and the friends find themselves thrust into the world of Camelot, a place where their magic is outlawed and their fates await them. But is the future set? Or can Elaine’s choices make all the difference?
So, let’s just get it out of the way. I didn’t really like this book. I’m going to start this review off with a backhanded compliment. If anything, this book was too creative. Frankly, the less familiar readers are with the original Arthurian tale and, to a certain extent, the original ballad of “The Lady of Shallot,” the more enjoyable this book would probably be. There’s a fine line when re-imagining a classic tale such as this between reinterpreting well-known aspects of the original and bounding away completely into left field and leaving readers who are familiar with the original bewildered and frustrated. This one was definitely the latter.
Most of the characters were so completely re-worked that other than their name they would be unrecognizable from their origins. Arthur, for example, was such a nothing character, so naïve and silly, that it was almost impossible to imagine him becoming the legendary king. The relationships between the characters were also completely re-worked. Mordred, for example, is not Arthur’s son, which has a pretty big impact on the greater story, as fans of the original know. The classic love triangle is also re-worked. To some extent, that can be refreshing (again, the “Camelot Rising” went a completely different direction with this, too, to great effect), but my bigger problem came with the fact that as these large, familiar parts of the story fell, there was less and less tying any of it to the original Arthurian epic. Even small things, like the fact that Merlin seemed to either not really care about the events going on around or him or actively root against Arthur as king, just felt off to the point of distraction.
I also didn’t care for Elaine herself. She was continuously self-guessing and doubting her choices. Much of her eternal dialogue I found to be annoying. Until the very end, she seemed to struggle to take any initiative herself, often running to others for help. I also struggled with the way she presented her story, jumping back and forth in time through her visions. Her romance was also so tinted by the doubts and concerns over the future that it was barely enjoyable.
I also struggled with the original set-up of the story. Why are all of these characters at Avalon, growing up with all of this magic? There were explanations for a few of them, but it almost felt like some wacky school story with a bunch of teenagers running around having adventures in magic-land. There were also some re-imaginings of characters having magical connections that were a bit strange. Some of them I could get behind, but others, less so.
Lastly, I’m not sure why this book is being heralded so strongly as a feminist story. That word can mean a lot of different things to people, but at its most basic sense, book-wise, I would think it means strong female characters in a story that, in the past, largely side-lined its women characters. So, sure, Elaine being the focus changes that. But she’s not a particularly great example of a strong, female character. And don’t get me started on the changes to Guinevere. Way too much magical wand-waving over her character, as if giving her fantasy aspects somehow makes her “strong.” If the only way you can think to make your female characters strong is to give them magical abilities, I’m going to side-eye you really hard.
So, yeah, this book wasn’t my cup of tea. There were too many changes from the original tale to not be constantly distracting and distressing. I also didn’t enjoy the main character or many of the side characters either. Perhaps those less familiar with the original story might enjoy it, but I think there are better examples of re-tellings out there.
Rating 6: The story strays too far away from its origins and drowns beneath a plethora of added fantasy elements.
“Half Sick of Shadows” is, questionably, on this Goodreads list: Feminist Interest 2021.
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