This isn’t the year of Arthurian retellings and revisitings, because there can’t be only one. The king and his affiliated tales have come before and he’ll be back around, cyclical as nature. But it’s definitely a year for Arthurian stories, from the way E.K. Johnston weaves The Fisher King into Aetherbound to the anthology Sword Stone Table to the upcoming The Other Merlin to, of course, Dev Patel in The Green Knight. I’m sure there are more; these are just off the top of my head.
In the middle of these sits Half Sick of Shadows, a story both familiar and not. The names, you know: Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Morgana, Elaine. There are, it turns out, a lot of Elaines, and this one specifically is Elaine of Astolat, also known as the Lady of Shalott. But like anyone playing in the Arthuriana sandbox, Laura Sebastian tweaks things. In this novel, the story belongs to Elaine—the past, present, and future of it.
If you’re a purist about Arthuriana, I don’t know what to tell you. As Tracy Deonn wrote in a brilliant recent piece, it’s all fanfic. There is no one true story. Here, Mordred is not Arthur’s son. Guinevere is a fierce fighter with a truly surprising secret. Lancelot is half-fey, and Elaine certainly doesn’t die for lack of his love.
Sebastian’s Elaine also doesn’t just sit in a tower, though she was raised in one by her mother, a woman hiding from the world and from her own power. Like her mother, Elaine is a seer, an oracle; unlike her mother, she will learn to use her gift. When she meets Morgana, Elaine’s life changes drastically. Morgana, as is so often the case, is irresistible. Troublemaking, a free spirit before anyone had ever so much as thought the term, she shocks young Elaine by not wearing a corset, by making trouble—and making magic. She also whisks Elaine off to Avalon, where the five central characters become fast friends, fall in love with each other, and are pushed toward one fate: Arthur as king.
When Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, dies, the friends leave Avalon for Camelot, where Arthur’s reception is not what anyone hoped for. With the throne contested, Merlin sets three tasks for Arthur, each more challenging than the last. But the young prince doesn’t have to face them alone.
Half Sick of Shadows begins with the group in their early 20s, but it’s told from Elaine’s perspective, which is anything but steady. Sebastian juggles a trio of timelines and tenses, and does it with grace and purpose: Elaine’s main story runs in present tense, but her memories dip into the past, and her visions peek into a future that may or may not happen. Morgana will brew a potion. The friends will betray each other. Elaine will drown. That last one is certain from the book’s first page—but as with all the visions, the hows and whys and whens are a mystery.
Elaine, apart from her seer’s skills, isn’t the obvious choice for a main character, and in Sebastian’s hands that makes her all the more likable. Morgana has the willfulness and showier powers of many a fantasy heroine, plus a pettily villainous twin sister, Morgause, who connives with Mordred. Guinevere has Arthur’s heart, but her own strength and certainty is what shapes her more than her love for the future king. When Elaine isn’t seeing a maddeningly uncertain future, she’s a thoughtful young woman trying to make her influence felt in a world that doesn’t want to hear from women. She’s just doing it quietly, almost practically, despite her seer’s powers. It’s an impressive feat, making a seer seem grounded.
This is a book about the women of Arthur’s court, and the men are a little less interesting. Arguably, Arthur doesn’t need to be interesting. He’s a figurehead, a symbol, a walking legend. He’s also very young, and the path he’s on was decided for him. What he thinks about that is beyond the scope of Sebastian’s story, which has other concerns: Can fate be changed? What does it do to a person to serve a single end, a single idea, a single future? Where are the lines between duty and love and choice? Can you love someone while knowing they’re going to betray you? Is it worth giving yourself to that love anyway?
At times, Elaine’s voice can be distractingly modern (“Courtship isn’t high on my list of priorities at the moment,” she says to Lancelot). But overall, the story has an out-of-time feel, as if its characters have one foot in a fantastical ancient world and another in a time more like the present. The shiftiness makes sense with Elaine’s visions; time is weird for her in general. But it can keep the book’s world from feeling entirely solid.
If you sink into Half Sick of Shadows, it has a stately, thoughtful, almost alluringly drowsy feel, like a strange dream on a hot day. It can be a little slow and repetitive, but in the days after I finished the book, Elaine stayed with me. Her perseverance is a quiet kind rarely given center stage, but she holds onto the story, even as her friends are doing extremely dramatic things, and her level-headed narration and determination lead to an end that both is and isn’t what’s expected. To hold on to that kind of yes-and-no ending, where it feels like many outcomes are happening at once, feels entirely right for the story of one of the women behind the once and future king.
Half Sick of Shadows is available from Ace Books.