One of the hallmarks of the Arthurian saga is its peculiar fluidity. Out of the same building blocks—Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Mordred, Merlin and so on—have come so many reimaginings as to render the source material almost, well, immaterial. Its most mutable features are the female characters: Some stories paint Morgan (also known as Morgaine, or Morgana) as a villain, others as a heroine and still others as a bit player; Nimue is sometimes the mystical Lady of the Lake and other times Merlin’s vengeful apprentice; some Guineveres are the chaste objects of Arthur and Lancelot’s doomed affections, while other Gwens are confident and thoroughly in command of their twinned relationships.
And yet from this panoply of characterizations, Laura Sebastian, the bestselling author of the young adult Ash Princess series, has found an entirely new perspective for her first adult fantasy. Half Sick of Shadows centers Elaine of Astolat, the one the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson dubbed “The Lady of Shalott,” in a reference to her home castle. Elaine's primary role in the classical telling is as one of the many maidens who falls in love with Lancelot. When she dies of heartbreak due to his lack of affection for her, the noble knight guiltily grants her a lavish funeral. It is a Romantic tragedy, and one badly in need of rescue.
Much as Marion Zimmer Bradley reclaimed Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon, Sebastian masterfully changes the narrative for Elaine in Half Sick of Shadows. But unlike Bradley’s sweeping masterpiece, Half Sick of Shadows is fascinatingly personal, finding the intimacy in one of English literature’s grandest tragedies. Elaine spent her childhood and early adolescence being bullied and repressing her magical gifts, until she becomes a seer and apprentice to Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. Under Nimue's guidance, Elaine comes of age alongside Morgana, Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. When Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father and High King of England, dies, the quintet returns to the land of men from Nimue’s fay realm so Arthur can claim his throne over the objections of Mordred (whom Sebastian casts as Arthur’s half-brother, not his incestuous son).
Arthurian aficionados will note several departures from the most commonly accepted version of the tale. Many of these are par for the course in this particular corner of historical fantasy, such as Mordred’s presence as Arthur’s rival from the beginning and the reference to a war between men and the fay. And rather than focusing solely on the goings-on at Camelot, Half Sick of Shadows splits its time between Avalon and Britain, with a notable venture into the mythical and monstrous land of Lyonesse. Even more striking is the near-total absence of religion from the story.
But perhaps Sebastian's most provocative choice is her use of Elaine as a partially omniscient, first-person, present-tense narrator and her emphasis on the part of the story that precedes Arthur’s coronation. The entire span of time between Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone and Mordred cutting him down in battle happens in the space between consecutive chapters. Rather than rehash the enormous tragedies of Arthur’s death, Sebastian instead focuses on the smaller tragedies of his life and the lives of those around him. In doing so, she transforms a story dominated by archetypes, clear-cut right and wrong, and women who are either docile or demonic into a tale of three confident, powerful women all honestly striving for good, only to find that it can be hard to determine exactly what “good” is, especially for the prophecy-cursed Elaine.
In an author’s note, Sebastian warns that Half Sick of Shadows deals very frankly with themes of mental illness and suicide, and her warning is very much necessary. Although it handles these topics decorously, there are certainly places where the tragic romance of the Arthurian saga is in unavoidable conflict with the realities Sebastian is interested in exploring. This is most definitely not a book for everyone; it is often deeply upsetting. However, it is a vital new contribution to the Arthurian canon and to fantasy more broadly, and a beautifully executed star turn for Elaine of Astolat.