Half Sick of Shadows is a historical fantasy that centers on Elaine, the Lady of Shallot, but a far more consequential Lady of Shallot than the passive victim of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem. She is a seer, blessed or cursed with the ability to see the future, though all futures form a metaverse of possibilities depending on choices made. Her problem is she can see too many futures with too little guidance as to which decisions lead to them.
Elaine grew up in Camelot, unlike Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, who she met when Arthur’s half-sister visited Camelot and befriended her, taking her to Avalon to finish growing up there away from her mother who tried to stifle Elaine’s ability with potions. There she grew up among the magical folk who were banned from the strictly mundane Camelot where all magic was banned.
When Arthur’s father died, Arthur, Elaine, Lancelot, and Elaine travel to Camelot while Guinevere travels to her home. In Camelot, Arthur is not welcomed as Mordred claims the through and Morgause allies with him. Merlin is ambivalent, though he leans more toward the sure thing in Mordred. Arthur is set the challenge of traveling to Guinevere’s home and making peace with them. It is not as easy as it would seem.
Meanwhile Elaine is haunted by all the possibilities, none of which seem good.
While Half Sick of Shadows is well-written with a true sense of place and with complex characters, I was disappointed in the story overall. I found the several iterations of the future tedious. At first, they were intriguing, but there were just too many. I suppose you could say we were given insight into the difficulty of being a seer, constantly plagued with possible futures with no certainty how to achieve or avoid them.
There were intriguing conflicts in the story, of course, there is the well-known conflict between Arthur and Mordred who is his half-brother rather than his son in this story. There is a conflict between Morgause and Morgana, as though the mythical woman has been split in two. There is the conflict between the church represented by Merlin and the magical represented by the Lady of the Lake, a conflict Elaine is asked to take sides in. These are all fascinating, but rather than engage, Elaine and the author sidestep the main event. We never learn how the inevitable comes to pass, a strange and disappointing decision.
Half Sick of Shadows at Berkley | Penguin Random House