Book Review : Half Sick of Shadows

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : Half Sick of ShadowsHalf Sick of Shadows by Laura Sebastian
Published by Ace on July 6th 2021
Genres: Fantasy, Fantasy & Magic
Pages: 448
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Source: NetGalley

The Lady of Shalott reclaims her story in this bold feminist reimagining of the Arthurian myth from the New York Times bestselling author of Ash Princess.
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.

As a really big fan of Arthurian legend, I’ve been loving that there are so many new retellings of the legend, like The Guinevere Deception and Half Sick of Shadows, releasing recently. I had to snap up Half Sick of Shadows, as soon as I read the synopsis. Half Sick of Shadows is a retelling of The Lady of Shalott and claims to be a bold, feminist retelling where the Lady of Shalott, Elaine, reclaims her story. Honestly, I found that the novel was not very feminist at all, despite its claims to the contrary, and that I did not care for a lot of the twists on Arthurian legend, and that I just didn’t like the characters or the writing style of Half Sick of Shadows.


“Nimue’s words come back to me. You will always be safe here, but you were not raised to be safe, you were raised to be heroes.


I really do admire that the author, Laura Sebastian committed so fully to writing such a different take on Arthurian legend. I thought it was pretty interesting how a lot of Half Sick of Shadows took place on the island of Avalon. It was interesting seeing the lives that the main group of characters, Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Morgana, and Elaine had there, even if it wasn’t extremely well-fleshed out and was told to us from Elaine’s memories of the past. However, I never really understood fully why all of these characters were growing up on Avalon, except for some vague and cheesy references to literally being heroes in training. Arthur is supposed to be raised there as part of a peace agreement between the fay and Camelot, since he is prophesied to bring peace to the formerly warring fay and humans with his future reign. Lancelot grows up there with his full fay mother, and Morgana we know, loves it on Avalion, but not why exactly she is there, and not at Camelot, in the first place. I also have no idea why Guinevere was on Avalon at all, but we do find out why Elaine comes to leave her mother’s tower and to enter Avalon.


While this take of having such legendary characters growing up together was quite intriguing, I personally struggled with a lot of the aspects of Arthurian legend in Half Sick of Shadows. I was really shocked when Mordred was not, in fact, the son of Arthur. As those familiar with Arthurian legend know, Mordred being Arthur’s son is a very big part of the tragedy of King Arthur. Instead, Mordred is a rival contender for the throne for Arthur, ( the bastard son of Uther, Arthur’s father, and also Morgause’s husband and stepbrother ), and a pretty basic, run of the mill villainous and conniving character. There wasn’t a whole lot of depth to him. I was similarly surprised by the fact that the major Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, which one could argue is the most famous part of the Arthurian legend, and even takes down the entire kingdom of Camelot, was not really a thing in this novel.


Instead the main romance is between protagonist Elaine and Lancelot, who is part fay. So already, two of the biggest tragedies and components from Arthurian legend are missing, and instead we are stuck with an insecure “will-they-won’t-they” first love where Elaine is repeatedly going back and forth on her feelings for Lancelot due to her visions. I also didn’t care for the portrayal of Merlin, who seemed to be Mordred’s champion over Arthur’s, which struck me as Arthurian blasphemy. I also didn’t like how little Merlin seemed to care about events in Camelot and the world at large. He was not at all the typical portrayal of Merlin, who usually appears like a magical genius and calculating mastermind, and instead seemed more like a quirky, lazy uncle, who throws in his unwanted two cents every once in awhile. 


Though I most certainly didn’t care for the portrayal of Merlin in Half Sick of Shadows, I found I didn’t really care for most of the other characters either, unfortunately. Arthur was completely bland, pure-hearted, and guileless, as he is often portrayed. In Half Sick of Shadows, he is more of a figurehead for the throne, where important decisions are made by his group of friends, and is also a puppet for the legend of Arthur, rather than a fully fleshed out character. He has to be there in order for it be the King Arthur legend, but he doesn’t feel integral to the story at all. I don’t find it believable that such an innocent and naïve person is able to be a legendary king and to make or in his case, even handle, the difficult decisions required. Lancelot was similarly bland to me, despite attempts to add spice to his character by making him part fay, it really didn’t have much bearing on his relationship with Elaine or any of the other characters. Half Sick of Shadows does give Guinevere, who is often portrayed as a damsel in distress or a similarly weak-minded woman, an interesting background, but the fact that she was actually View Spoiler » really undermined her character, in my opinion.


In fact, I don’t think I can overstate how much I did not like that twist in her character and thought it not only completely unnecessary, but also as a blanket excuse for why she was more wild than her legendary character, rather than actual character development. I’d really like to see a feral, warrior Guinevere that just had that personality, period. View Spoiler » There is already so much inherent drama in Arthurian legend, why is it necessary to add these kinds of overdone tropes? 


I didn’t care much for main character Elaine, either, sadly.  She is so caught up in the possibilities of the future and who might betray her that she is truly unable to live. Whenever she hits a bump in the road, she runs crying for help from the Lady of the Lake, Nimue, or to Merlin, who doesn’t even really support her same cause. When Elaine does finally decide to ignore a couple of visions, it doesn’t feel empowering, but an act of pure desperation, as nothing else has worked or turned out well. The only character I truly had any positive feelings for in Half Sick of Shadows was, in fact, Morgana aka Morgan Le Fay. I truly found her to be a sympathetic character, loving Avalon, her magic, and wishing to remain on the island forever. It was a pretty big problem for me that though Elaine had View Spoiler » And it’s never really explained why this was necessary other than to say that the future is only made up of many different possibilities. 


“Especially knowing what Nimue and I do about [Morgana] and Arthur’s relationship, how everything we’ve seen shows it being the first to fracture, how it leads to everything else. I don’t know why Nimue is so insistent on sending her back to Camelot. She could keep her here, happy and out of trouble.”


These many possibilities are frequently recounted to us by Elaine, which was honestly not my favorite part of Half Sick of Shadows. As an oracle, Elaine constantly sees visions of the future. That means readers, like Elaine, are constantly reliving the same visions, or different versions of them over and over again, which got quite tedious. Also as a result of these visions, and the fact that Elaine has a foot in the door of the future, Half Sick of Shadows is told in a non-linear fashion. Sometimes, the time setting jumps to past, present, and future all in the same chapter. This really didn’t work for me, especially because the jumping didn’t seem all that well planned, with readers not finding out important parts about characters and events either ever or not until way later after an explanation would have been useful. Plus, this novel is really just one big “tell” and not “show.” Unfortunately, Elaine really tells readers everything, and the story itself does not show us. This made for a less enjoyable read for me personally. 


“Don’t you know who you’re talking to? Lady Elaine of Shalott–Arthur’s closest adviser. He trusts her judgement implicitly, and should you try to go over her head…well, I wouldn’t recommend it.”


A big thing that I would have liked one of these explanations on was how exactly Elaine ended up as being Arthur’s advisor. To me, it seems like a no-brainer not to pick someone who is known as “Elaine the Mad” back in Camelot to be an advisor.  But Arthur is completely unabashed about Elaine’s reputation and how it might reflect on him, even though it seems like something that could have an effect on his bid for the throne. To put it simply, it’s just bad campaign politics. Plus, I did not see Elaine getting any kind of political training at all in Avalon. Yes, she is an oracle, but I fail to see how knowing certain versions of the future makes you suitable to be the sole advisor to the future king. What’s worse, is she was virtually a shut in in her mother’s tower back in Camelot, so I really don’t see how she was at all qualified or experienced enough for this important position. 


“Nimue would be awfully proud, wouldn’t she?” she asks, her voice brittle as frozen glass. “Arthur before all.”


One of the biggest issues I had was with the claim that Half Sick of Shadows is the feminist and bold marketing claims. The entire novel revolves around Elaine, the protagonist, Morgana, Lancelot and Guinevere doing whatever it takes to put Arthur on the throne. This usually means sacrificing their own personal well-being, whether it’s emotional, mental, physical, or involves their homelands, families, goals, and dreams. It’s rather depressing, as is the ending of the novel. Yes, Elaine manipulates Guinevere into giving up her own happiness and marrying Arthur on the promise of being able to change Camelot with its typical societal pressures on women, but they both quickly realize this is never going to happen in their own lifetimes. That’s pretty disheartening and not at all feminist to me. 


I guess Half Sick of Shadows likes to portray itself as feminist because of the time the main characters spent on the fay island of Avalon, where woman can wear revealing clothing, sleep with men of their choosing and before marriage. But does it truly count to be a feminist when you’re living somewhere where women have more rights? Isn’t a true feminist someone who fights for the rights of women where and when there are none? It really didn’t translate well to me how easily the woman gave up their rights from Avalon and then gave up on changing things in Camelot for the better. Plus, they were all constantly willing to give up anything for Arthur, a man. There’s a pretty big disconnect here in what the novel wanted to do and what it actually did, which was making its heroine seem unqualified, uncertain, and easily giving up. 


Unfortunately, Half Sick of Shadows, with its non-linear timelines, unlikeable characters, strange takes on Arthurian legend, and constant telling and not showing, which was highlighted by Elaine telling us the same visions repeatedly, was not the most enjoyable read for me. I think the premise of retelling the rather dark tale of The Lady of Shalott as a feminist, modern tale was a really interesting and promising, but sadly, the novel just didn’t stick the landing. For me, I was more than half sick of this novel and considered DNF-ing at several points. If you are not bothered by different takes on Arthurian legend that aren’t really true to the core of it, you might still like this novel. I personally enjoyed another retelling of Arthurian legend, The Guinevere Deception, which also has a focus on the female characters and several unconventional twists on the legend, more. 

Book Review : Half Sick of Shadows - Blogging with Dragons

Posted May 17, 2021 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

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