Book Review: Half Sick of Shadows by Laura Sebastian

Author: Laura Sebastian
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Ace
Publish Date: July 6, 2021
Print Length: 443

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Official Synopsis

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 destiny–and what she is willing to sacrifice along the way.

My Review

I absolutely LOVED this book. I’ve been recommending it non-stop since I read it in December 2021. I waited to write this review because I know whatever I say won’t do this book justice (so please be kind!). The ending emotionally devastated me even though we know from the first page what will happen.

I will die drowning; it has always been known. This was my first vision, long before I knew it for what it was, and I’ve had it so many times now that I know each instant by heart.
p. 1

HALF SICK OF SHADOWS is a feminist retelling of Arthurian lore. It focuses on how the women around Arthur–Elaine, Morgana, Guinevere, and Nimue–guided Arthur to the throne and made sacrifices along the way. Laura Sebastian wrote from Elaine’s point of view. Most may traditionally know Elaine from Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott,” which describes Elaine’s curse and her unrequited love for Lancelot. In this poem Elaine laments how “I am half sick of shadows,” or that she is tired of viewing the world through her curse. However, Sebastian doesn’t relegate Elaine to a background character of Arthurian legend. Instead, she breathes new life into the character, crafting Elaine’s story superbly. Every page is laced with a dream-like, ethereal quality. Each word, chosen carefully.

In this retelling, Elaine is a prophesier. She can see what might come to pass, though the future isn’t necessarily set in stone. Each person has a role and their decisions can sway not only their own fate, but others as well. Elaine carries a heavy, lonely burden, for sharing any of her visions could influence her friends’ decisions and imperil the future of Camelot.

Sometimes, all you can do is find the beauty in the broken. All you can do is figure out how to put the pieces together as best you can, to make something new out of them.
p. 318

Fate and free will are the dominant themes with which Elaine grapples. Ever since they were children growing up on Avalon, Elaine, Morgana, and Guinevere have known they are to be there for Arthur when it’s time to take the throne of Camelot. Their ultimate goal is to bridge the philosophical divide between magical Avalon and stuffy Camelot, where magic is feared. Told from Elaine’s past, present, and future perspectives, we see how decisions made by herself, as well as Morgana, Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot, shape and narrow her visions of their future. Though some versions of their future present more frequently than others, there are open-ended possibilities…until there aren’t. Elaine holds out hope that their quest to get Arthur to the throne won’t break them, but darker visions whisper in the back of her mind.

She never wanted to be a hero, never craved glory or admiration. She cares about her own happiness first and foremost, and there is something admirable about that, especially in a court where women are happy to fold themselves up tight to be more easily manageable, to swallow aresenic to bet hought of as just a little bit sweeter.
p. 127

Self-sacrifice is another prevailing theme, particularly for the women in the story. Morgana and Guinevere highly value their freedom of mind, magic, and expression. Though they know they’ll eventually need to surrender or tightly constrain this when the time comes to sacrifice these things for Arthur, they find it hard not to balk at the price. Where in Avalon they are free to be who they are, Camelot is an antiquated place. For the good of Arthur and Camelot, Elaine tries not to acknowledge her love for Lancelot; she carries all of their futures in her mind; and she serves as Arthur’s advisor, for he is unfamiliar with ways of the court. This begs the question of how much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice for the “greater good”?

I really enjoyed reading about Elaine’s flashbacks to their time on Avalon, to their more simple, carefree way of living. These scenes show us the growth of their friendship and loyalty, their personalities, and how this buds into love. Though the romance is a background element, Sebastian weaves the story of Elaine and Lancelot so delicately, so heart wrenchingly, that I was an empathetic mess at the conclusion.

HALF SICK OF SHADOWS is an exquisite novel that is an elegant testament of fate versus free will. It showcases the quiet and fierce strengths of the women who give so much of themselves and their desires to ensure a better future.

Rating: 5/5
Content warnings: drowning, mentions of sex
Reading format: Hardback

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Half Sick of Shadows by Laura Sebastian

    1. Thanks! I admit I wasn’t super familiar with the Lady of Shalott. I remember watching Anne of Green Gables a lot as a kid and Anne reciting the poem, but that’s about it. This retelling is amazing.

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