It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of re-imagined classics: Achilles, Circe, the Trojan women — I love a take on a well known tale from a marginalized perspective. Of course, all of those that I mentioned are Greek myths, with which I have quite a bit of familiarity. On a recent trip to the bookstore I found Half Sick of Shadows, which really piqued my interest — the story of King Arthur and Camelot from the perspective of Elaine Astolat, Lady of Shalott. Now, to be honest, the little I know of Arthurian legend comes from the musical Camelot; I’ve never read Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur or Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” which served as inspiration for author Laura Sebastian. Camelot is a very sad musical about chivalry, loyalty, love, and betrayal. Elaine is not a character in that story and when I looked her up online, I discovered that she really doesn’t serve much of a purpose in Morte d’Arthur other than as a tragic side story of a lovely young woman whose unrequited love is tied to her untimely death. (This novel begins with an author’s note about mental health issues and suicide.) There are aspects of the Arthurian legend that Sebastian does incorporate into her novel, but on the whole I think her re-imagined Camelot is a far more interesting place than the original and her characters more complex and relatable.
Half Sick of Shadows is told from the point of view of Elaine, a girl living at the court in Camelot with her mother. Camelot is the capital of Albion, the powerful human kingdom ruled by King Uther Pendragon. Uther and his human armies defeated the magical people called the Fey decades ago, and as we learn, Uther and Nimue (Lady of the Lake and ruler of the Fey) have made a truce; Uther sent his young son Arthur to Avalon to be raised among the Fey until Uther dies and Arthur takes over. Nimue’s goal is for Arthur to bring peace between the magical and non-magical worlds because as it is, humans hate and fear the magical. This hatred could lead to the end of both worlds, as has been seen in visions that Nimue has had. Elaine as a child has had horrible dreams that her mother knows are not just bad dreams but visions. Elaine and her mother are both Oracles or Seers, but Elaine’s mother does everything she can to suppress her own and Elaine’s visions, using drugs in an attempt hide this magical power. These attempts take Elaine’s mother down a path to madness while Elaine fights against her efforts to suppress her magic and eventually meets and becomes friends with Morgana, Uther’s step-daughter and a black sheep whose magical abilities make her more at home in Avalon than Camelot. She encourages Elaine to run away with her to Avalon, where Nimue recognizes Elaine’s powerful ability and sees her as key to the long term plan of preparing Arthur for the throne.
Avalon is kingdom of the Fey, but it is there that Elaine also meets and befriends Arthur (fully human), Guinevere (aka Gwen, Princess from Lyonesse who possesses magical ability), and Lancelot (half human, half Fey but without magical power) in addition to Morgana. The five spend their teen years together studying, fighting (Gwen is actually better with a sword than Arthur and almost as good as Lance) and working on their various abilities. Elaine always feels a bit outside the circle since she was the last to arrive in Avalon and her “magic” is so different from the others’. She is a student of Nimue, however, and this marks her as special. I found Sebastian’s explanation of the nature of Nimue and Elaine’s visions and the future to be very interesting and plausible; this is important because otherwise the whole story would fall apart. As Nimue tells Elaine, “Nothing in the future is truly settled until it becomes the past.” Elaine’s visions for Arthur, Gwen, Lance, Morgana and herself often repeat, but sometimes details in them change, showing that, even though it looks likely that Gwen and Lance will betray Arthur and Elaine and that Morgana will become evil and hateful, it is NOT a foregone conclusion. There is always a chance that things will turn out differently. Elaine also foresees her own death by drowning, and that is not a spoiler because the novel opens with this and it is a vision that Elaine has frequently.
I really loved this story because the main characters — Elaine, Morgana, Gwen, Arthur and Lance — are all friends who love each other and who understand that they are on Avalon to prepare for making Arthur king. The three girls are actually more powerful than the boys and the boys recognize and respect this even though when they return to the human world, most other men will not. They will fear and resent powerful women, and this is significant for the story. When Uther dies and they all leave Avalon, the troubles begin. Elaine is Arthur’s main advisor which gives her a power not seen at Camelot before, and it is also a power over her other friends. Even though they all share Nimue’s goal, some of the things they will have to do to put Arthur on the throne (contested by his half brother Mordred) will shake their relationships to each other. The relationships amongst the three women are especially fraught, and I love the way Sebastian shows the conflicts as they develop among them. The resolution was also beautifully done. This is not Morte d’Arthur or Camelot; it is a feminist story about recognizing one’s own power and where one draws the line when it comes to self sacrifice.