By Sahana C.
Half Sick of Shadows caught me with its premise. Billed as a feminist version of Arthurian legend, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. King Arthur, the Round Table, and all of the many stories of knights and chivalry are…really not known for their peak feminist content. In fact, the two major women within Arthurian legend, Guinevere and Morgana, both end up being villains and betraying Arthur when he needs them most. But Sebastian lets the reader into a world where, it’s true, there are places that Guinevere and Morgana, and even Lancelot, could betray steadfast Arthur, but she makes sure the origins of the myth are clear. To do that, she introduces Elaine, a minor character in Arthurian lore who plays the leading role in one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Lady of Shalott.”
Tennyson’s Lady and Sebastian’s Elaine couldn’t be more different in terms of temperament, abilities, and importance, but elements of the poem are woven tightly into the narrative; the Lady falls for Lancelot at first sight, she has some sort of prophetic power, and she believes, deeply, that she is cursed. See, the Lady of Shalott can only see the world through the mirror above her as she weaves. Tennyson opens the poem with great detail about the beauty of the world outside only to tell us that the Lady never sees it. She sits with her back to the window, but cannot escape the draw of the world outside, and as it finds its way into her weaving, she glances at the mirror to ensure accuracy. In fact, in one of the most poignant stanzas of the poem,
“But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
The Lady of Shalott.” (Tennyson)
Sebastian’s version of the Lady of Shalott, Elaine, is an oracle haunted by a tower in Camelot, just the same, but this Elaine takes control of her future. She is taught to understand her seeing by the Lady of the Lake, she lives among the Fae, and most importantly, she is the last addition to a group of children who grow up in Avalon, balancing between the Fae and the Human worlds. That group of children? Lancelot, Guinevere, Morgana, and Arthur himself. By setting up these friendships so firmly, Sebastian makes the thought of future betrayal gut-wrenching. Because the reader gets to follow her growth, it makes Elaine’s role as oracle and Arthur’s top advisor even more important. And this is the beauty of Sebastian’s story-crafting: Elaine, the fair damsel with no real grit, becomes Arthur’s top advisor and the most important woman in this world. Guinevere is bold and brash and deeply in love with Arthur, but could never be disloyal. And Morgana is the fiercest protector Arthur has on his side, her magic at his service, no matter the personal cost.
Half Sick of Shadows by Laura Sebastian is well worth a read for those who appreciate historical fantasy, Arthurian myth, and coming-of-age stories, all in one. It is available in print and eBook format.
Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.