I forced myself to finish this. I honestly don’t know why.
**This review contains spoilers**
God. God I hated this so much.
Okay, so here’s the setup: Elaine is an oracle (cool). Elaine is being emotionally abused by her evil depressed mother, who is the only mentally ill character in this book (somewhat less cool). Elaine then goes to Avalon, where everyone is liberated and wears skimpy clothing and is neo-pagan in sixth century fantasy Britain for some reason! (GO BACK GO BACK I WANT TO GO BACK) Yeah, suffice to say that this book impressed me with an interesting first scene and then took a swan dive off a cliff. At least my expectations weren’t that high? …Still though, I was foolish enough to at least have some expectations!
Clearly, I need to stop doing that with modern Arthuriana.
I’ll get into all the ugly stuff later, but let me start off by saying that I was super confused about the plot for most of the book? Elaine’s visions led me to believe that this was going to cover all of Arthur’s reign from his rise to his fall, because she kept having visions about the arthurpocalypse and How It All Fell Apart (ooh). And then I was at the middle of the book and Arthur hadn’t even married Guinevere yet? I honestly had to rack my brains to remember if this was really a standalone. Anyway, yeah, I could have done with a few less visions! Or at least put something in the blurb to make it clear that this is about Arthur’s rise to power? Maybe?
So yeah, the plot was really boring and I honestly don’t know why I was supposed to care. Oh no, Merlin is supporting Mordred, who is now Arthur’s half-brother for some reason and also in love with Morgause because this book decided to devote its existence to making me want to throw up! Why is Merlin doing this (especially when supporting Mordred goes against everything he stood for in the legends)? I don’t know! Elaine wants to stop this, because Mordred will run the kingdom into the ground! At least in an unspecified vision Elaine had, anyway. Why couldn’t we have seen that vision? It would have given such a better sense of the stakes if we could have seen what would have happened to Albion. Elaine is all-in for Arthur for…reasons I guess! I don’t know why! Why can’t she grab power for herself and be queen if she can literally see the future? She’d do a better job of it than either of those two schmucks.
I couldn’t help but compare this to Nirvana in Fire as I read this, not because it was anywhere NEAR as good as Nirvana in Fire, but because both stories had a protagonist who puts their life on hold to get some other guy on the throne. But Mei Changsu had a clear reason for wanting the current emperor off the throne, because the emperor was responsible for the death of his family. I get why that would drive you to do really extreme things! And I also understand why he would think Prince Jing was the best guy to be on the throne. Prince Jing is a guy who REALLY cares about justice, and the corrupt royal court doesn’t have a lot of guys like that. I just…wasn’t convinced about Arthur? It’s not that he’s bad, it’s just that I don’t understand why he’s good, let alone the best guy to be on the throne. I don’t know why Elaine cares so much about this guy, other than that Nimue told her he would bring some vague ‘golden age’ or whatever. Sure, I…guess he’s better than Mordred? Were there no other options? Why are my only two options ‘evil weasel’ and ‘stale chunk of white bread?’
Also, like…Nihuang was more of a girl power icon than any of the women in these books will ever be.
Speaking of girl power! The way feminism was handled in this book was so simplistic, heavy-handed, and sometimes…just plain dumb? Probably the most egregious scene was with Morgana and the tapestry. Okay, okay, get this. Morgana walks into the room, points to the unicorn on the tapestry and asks Elaine if she knows what the unicorn represents. Elaine answers that it represents virtue, and Morgana responds that it represents virginity, and the men don’t want to tell her that because they don’t want to seem too interested in what goes on between a girl’s legs (her words, not mine). I…
POLICING WOMEN’S SEXUALITY IS THE WHOLE POINT FOR THESE PEOPLE AND THAT ABSOLUTELY EXTENDS TO HOW THEY TREAT TEENAGERS. Oh boy, I wish this were how the world worked! I sure WISH that men would pretend not to care too much about a teenage girl’s sexuality! Someone take me to this fantasy world, please! *bangs head against a wall* I have literally read an article in which a girl’s parents pulled her out of the swim team at age TEN because the swimsuit she had to wear was too tight (fitted swimsuits are required for competitive swimming)! I have heard of young teenage girls getting lectured for being a ‘stumbling block’ to the older men in their church because the young girl wore a shirt that was too tight or something. Please explain to me again how these types of men will act so bashfully around young women that they don’t even want to mention virginity in front of them.
Anyway, this was all a lead-in to Morgana’s sex joke, because of course it was. Arthur is RIDING the unicorn? Get it??? *waggles eyebrows* If your sex joke has to be explained that much in order for it to make sense, it isn’t a very good joke. Kill me now.
And then Morgana proceeds to burn the tapestry #ForTheLols, which makes me want to kill her. Embroidery is so hard and those girls worked on the tapestry so much. Just because Elaine hates the tapestry doesn’t mean all the girls who worked on it do. It must have been some of those girls’ pride and joy. That was the moment I decided I hated Morgana.
The feminism would swing between being about historical issues no modern woman would have to face and modern issues no historical woman would likely face. And sometimes issues NO woman would face, ever (see the tapestry). The corset represents female oppression!!! Get it, because the boning in a corset is like a cage?? Sort of like how real women are in a metaphorical cage?? DO YOU GET THE SYMBOLISM??? And the pooooooor women, not being able to practice archery and having to wear corsets and all that. Because medieval women absolutely wore corsets and didn’t practice archery.
…Okay, look here. Medieval noblewomen practiced archery because oh, look at that! They went hunting! They absolutely didn’t wear corsets. My God. The author just lifted a bunch of stereotypes about the 19th century in order to write her book. At one point the heroine wears a dress that has cap sleeves, which. I’m pretty sure would not have been done in the medieval period? All the women in paintings that I’ve seen have their arms covered up to their wrists, which would have been a pretty nice thing to mention if you want to talk about modesty! Oh, and at one point, Elaine literally says ‘not all men,’ to which Guinevere replies, ‘not all men, Elaine……but enough of them,’ and I’m sorry, did I stumble onto a twitter conversation somehow? Because I would like to get off. Like. Are you writing about 19th century–oh, I’m sorry, medieval oppression of women, or are you making commentary on how they’re oppressed in the present day? Or are you going to look at the ways in which the treatment of women stays the same throughout history, discussing how while times change, some of the ways in which people treat women remain the same, and–oh, you just steamrolled past that option. Didn’t even notice it. Never mind, I’m not sure what else I expected.
You know what, I give up. I’m going to have Mordred say “yes all men” and shove a guy out a window. If Laura Sebastian can do it, so can I.
(A quick note: I don’t think Arthuriana has to be historically accurate at all! It’s basically impossible to write historically accurate Arthuriana, if you want to get down to it. But my personal preference is for the world to feel more medieval than this? And I really just don’t understand why we’re segueing into 19th century women’s issues.)
I also think the feminism in this book doesn’t address a lot of women out there? The liberation in this book is found in wildness. Avalon, with its sexy sexy bonfires and women who wear skimpy clothing, is liberated. THEIR women do stuff. They can do magic and be fighters. Lyonesse is liberated. Their women are werewolves and they wear short skirts and kill people! They’re wild and they run and fight! Camelot’s women…
…Um, they’re just not mentioned? Elaine’s mom is mentioned. She’s evil and abusive. Morgause is mentioned. She’s evil because she wants power for herself, unlike good and sweet Elaine who wants power for a man. And worse, Morgause is too feminine, unlike the heroine, who is just the right amount of feminine! Morgause cares about her appearance and stuff, which makes her an evul harpy who is evul! Seriously, Morgause is such a negative female stereotype. I do not understand why you would pretend to write a feminist novel and then treat your female villains this way?
To be fair, Elaine is from Camelot, but she spends most of her teenage years on Avalon, and she has Avalon’s values. I’m not counting her. Even though she is more ‘normal’ than her friends, she still seems like an exceptional woman to me, with her powers as a seeress that allows her to influence the rise and fall of kings. What of the normal women? The women who aren’t werewolves, or sorceresses, or kingmakers?
Anyway, we never hear about the women who do fit in and what they go through. We also never hear about the women who don’t fit in in different ways from Elaine and co. The feminism is just not very intersectional. There are a few women of color, but they’re either relegated to relatively minor roles, or, uh…We’ll get to that later. The closest thing we get to queer rep is Guinevere and Elaine jokingly flirting, but don’t worry, folks! They’re very straight, they’re just flirting because they’re not homophobic and women flirting is funny or…something? I guess? Seriously, they had more chemistry in that one scene than either of them EVER do with their trash boyfriends. We never hear about any disabled or mentally ill women. Oh wait, I almost forgot! We do hear about one mentally ill woman, who is mentally ill and abusive. Can’t forget Elaine’s mom.
Look, I don’t mind mentally ill abusive characters. In fact, I think there’s absolutely a place for them. Not all mentally ill people are good, that’s stupid. We’re people, not just an identity, and sometimes people are very bad. And I do think that since mental illness affects all parts of your life (or it can, anyway), it makes sense that someone’s toxic or abusive behavior would be influenced by their mental illness. But does she have to be the only mentally ill character in the story? Does Morgana have to say “She’s touched in the head” and imply that that is the reason why Elaine should leave her? I know the author said she had depression, and I respect that she probably had a reason for portraying depression in that way, but I also have depression, and personally? It didn’t sit right with me, and I’m just a little bitter. Why can’t Elaine have depression and struggle to get out of bed and leave her tower sometimes? Why can’t Lancelot draw her out–not cure her, but make things a little better–and convince her to brave the dangers of the real world, a place that’s confusing and sometimes harsh and not at all as simple as her tapestries? Why is that not the heroine the 21st century needs or whatever?
(Like…giving her depression would have given her a connection to the Tennyson poem that she absolutely did not have lmao.)
There are a few women of color, but I don’t think they were handled well? Nimue is Black, and I don’t have too many problems with her–sure, she’s not that interesting, but it’s not like she stands out for that in that cast. Morgana and Morgause, though?? They’re both described as having ‘bronze skin,’ and the way it’s written, is, uh…
She was beautiful in a cruel way, with luminous bronze skin, long, wavy hair the color of jet, a hawklike nose, and a wide mouth painted red as blood.
I just! I don’t like how she’s described as ‘beautiful in a cruel way’ and then it goes on to describe her bronze skin and aquiline nose! This rubs me the wrong way! I hate this so much!
Oh, and Mordred has a ‘hooked nose?’ And, if I remember correctly, Morgause does, too? I…*slowly slides into the dirt* If you’re wondering why this upsets me, hooked noses are something Jewish people are often stereotyped as having. (TW for discussions of antisemitism in the link.) I’m not trying to cancel the author and I’m not trying to argue that she’s a bad person, but I wish she or her editor had googled ‘antisemitic coding’ before publishing this.
Random little things that annoyed me:
-There were places where the writing just…did not make sense? “Relief falls over Arthur’s expression like a velvet curtain.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN.
-Mordred has ‘sand-colored’ hair in one scene and black hair in another. I refuse to believe this book was edited.
-Everyone in this book swears using the words ‘Maiden, Mother, and Crone,’ which, while I’m pretty sure it comes from beliefs about Hecate, is still a very modern phrasing? Honestly, though, the fact that half the characters in this book practiced a modern religion is the least bad thing about this book. (Nothing against neo-pagans or anything like that! I just don’t understand why the characters happen to believe the exact same thing as neo-pagans in the 21st century when they supposedly aren’t time travelers lmao?)
-The magic in this book is SO hokey. At one point Morgana literally pulls down the moon from the sky and threatens to destroy it. Okay Admiral Zhao. Admiral Zhao did it better, tbh. What even was this book.
-Morgana has purple eyes?????
-The worst thing? LANCELOT KEPT CALLING ELAINE ‘SHALOTT.’ THAT IS LIKE IF SOMEONE KEPT CALLING ME BY THE NAME OF MY HOMETOWN. WHAT PARALLEL UNIVERSE HAVE I ENTERED INTO THAT THIS BOOK EXISTS. I WANT OUT.
The ONE thing about this book that I liked is that the heroine understands the need for propaganda, and in general, the political intrigue wasn’t awful. That was the one thing. Everything else? Throw it away. Preferably somewhere far away from me, please.
Anyway, this was an awful experience! I possibly enjoyed reading Yu Wu more, and I didn’t even finish that one because the hero was a burning dumpster fire full of toxic waste. A burning dumpster fire full of toxic waste is still better than watching paint dry, though, which was what reading this felt like.
6 thoughts on “Half Sick of Shadows; a review, in which I am half sick of this book (okay, more than half)”
“Relief falls over Arthur’s expression like a velvet curtain.” XD X’D I CAN’T.
When I read descriptions like that, I just have to wonder what the author was actually picturing…and why they thought that was a good way to describe it
Really, this sounds so bad though. And the whole “Is it the 19th century? Is it medieval?” situation…is it too much to ask of an author to make up their mind? I totally understand writing a first draft where the time period is inconsistent (because…I’ve done that XD), but one would hope that that wouldn’t extend beyond a draft or two–certainly not all the way to publication. But apparently that’s an unrealistic expectation?
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I have to wonder what the author was actually picturing too?? Tbh it sounds like one of those descriptions that you write at two o’ clock in the morning and then reread the next day with a dead-eyed stare on your face. How did that make it into the final print???
It really was awful. In theory I don’t mind an author pulling from multiple time periods for Arthuriana (although I personally definitely prefer a medieval feel to Arthurian settings), but the way this was done was so…ehhh. Like why would you put corsets into your world JUST to talk about how oppressive they are, that’s not even accurate to the 19th century. There were definitely women in the period who didn’t like corsets, and there was pressure to have a narrow waist that led some women to tightlace, but corsets aren’t inherently painful or anything. Not all women have bad experiences with corsets??
Lol, I’ve had flash fiction where I only decided on the time period halfway through. First drafts can be so messy, lol.
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OH MY GOODNESS I HAVE SOME FRUSTRATIONS WITH THIS BOOK AND I NEED TO VENT. it is not a good sign when I read something and have to go looking up other likeminded people just to feel like I have company that will validate my feelings, but here I am. “Song of the Sparrow” was the first book that got me into Arthurian mythology as a young kid, and the protagonist of that book is also Elaine so here I am, more than a decade later feeling in the mood to read another book with her at the helm and this book was not what I was expecting it to be. My excitement took a dip sooner than it should’ve which was not a good sign, but my initial impression is almost always right and this was no exception because it didn’t take me long to feel that I was not going to be very into this book despite the intriguing first chapter, but it just went downhill from there and I was supposed to finish the book today, but I could not so I divided the last hundred pages that I had meant to read into halves and will finish the last half tomorrow, but wow, the part I was particularly irritating. However, I am getting ahead of myself.
Needless to say, a definite flaw is just the proclamation that this book is a “bold feminist reimaging” which is going to invite a lot of room for criticism more so than if it hadn’t, because I find myself nitpicking how feminist this book really is and it only grows the more and more I read. I also got too ahead of myself thinking this book was going to be promising because someone brought up Madeline Miller on the back in one of the reviews and Laura Sebastian does not measure up in my opinion, so this is the criticisms I have before even cracking into the story itself. I hope you won’t mind me quoting some parts of your review just so I can better organize this and chime in in agreement.
“Elaine’s visions led me to believe that this was going to cover all of Arthur’s reign from his rise to his fall, because she kept having visions about the arthurpocalypse and How It All Fell Apart (ooh). And then I was at the middle of the book and Arthur hadn’t even married Guinevere yet? I honestly had to rack my brains to remember if this was really a standalone.”
I COMPLETELY agree with you. I actually had to go looking up if this book was a standalone (especially seeing that the author had written a series before writing this book). I probably would not have committed to this if it was a series regardless, but it made me curious because at least that would explain the pacing of this book being what it was, but nope, it just had some odd priorities that I did not find compelling. I doubt much is going to happen in the last fifty pages that I have left to read, so the book really was just all about them leaving Avalon and going out on this first quest to ensure Arthur’s claim to the throne and that does not make for very much of a compelling story – especially not with the way it’s being framed by the past and the future, the present just feels so lackluster. Why focus on this single quest in particular? I’m at a lost on why it’s so important like it doesn’t need to take up as much of a bulk of the book as it should. Even if it’s to show how they prove Arthur’s right to throne, it doesn’t hold up and the book could’ve definitely covered a greater timeframe. Or at least picked a more interesting aspect of their lives to focus on. Needless to say, this book is REALLY going to have to pull things together in such a way that will impress me and make it all make sense why it’s written the way it is, but honestly, I don’t think it has the capability to do that.
“Oh, and Mordred has a ‘hooked nose?’ And, if I remember correctly, Morgause does, too?”
Yup, this definitely was not a good choice… Coincidentally, this was one of the first things that tipped me off that I wasn’t going to be as into this book as I had been hoping going in. Not because I think the author was purposefully being antisemitic (although it does perpetuate those negative ideas…), but it just was not giving me a good feeling and then it was perhaps a self-fulfilled prophecy from there that this book was going to be lacking. This book makes me want to finally start reading Elizabeth Wein’s series about Mordred or Nancy Springer’s “I Am Modred” just because this book makes Modred such a one-dimensional conniving character and I want a more sympathetic – or at least more nuanced – interpretation of him. A lot is lost by not having him be Arthur’s son, but I would’ve been fine with this book’s decision not to have him be if it had actually done something more with it than have Modred be some scheming villain with no depth to him. Then again, a lot of the characters felt flat to me.
“The way feminism was handled in this book was so simplistic, heavy-handed, and sometimes…just plain dumb?”
Honestly I could just leave it at that, because you summed it up already and I only have frustrated half-formed thoughts at most, but I still want to ramble on about this just so that I could get my thoughts off my chest. I already was rolling my eyes to myself when they went on about how oppressive and constricting corsets were because that idea is so tried and done and not even completely accurate, but it’s whatever. Ugh, there was this one passage that I summed this up for me but now I’ve lost whatever page it was on and I can’t be bothered to spend more time looking for it, but I just find myself questioning if this book is actually very feminist. I get the feeling that Laura Sebastian has been aware of the issues that popularly get the more discourse surrounding them, but she has a very shallow understanding of them and doesn’t handle the issues in a very nuanced manner, so it does feel very simplistic and just boils down to women being oppressed because of A, B, and C so in order to solve that D, E, and F needs to happen. It’s just weird there’s such a heavy focus on sexuality in a way that doesn’t feel very progressive or like it’s saying anything, which you pointed out yourself with the unicorn thing like it just feels juvenile and I read this book because I didn’t want to read something YA. It’s also weird that their powers begin to emerge with their first menstrual cycle like what’s up with that. Again, you make a lot of good points in regards to this and I only have half-formed thoughts, but I know that I could definitely find a better book that handles an Arthurian story in a feminist lens (tentatively hoping that Lucy Holland’s “Sistersong” can deliver on this). There’s so much to unpack in this regards and I don’t have the capacity to sit down and thoroughly ramble about it right now.
“There are a few women of color, but I don’t think they were handled well? Nimue is Black.”
Just wanted to comment on this because I didn’t even pick up that Nimue was black, but it’s suddenly occurring to me that the way the fey are talked about in this book just gives me an icky feeling like they’re so generalized and we never get to know any of them personally despite Elaine growing up on the island. They’re never given any names and you would think the way she talks positively about them that there’d be fey that she would refer to be name, but they’re always a nameless bunch and almost every time they’re mentioned it’s brought up how alien they look. Not to mention how their way of life is described… I don’t know. It just gives me vibes of some white anthropologist from the 18/19/20th century writing about a tribe from another country in a way.
Lastly, we finally circle around to my frustrations from the segment I read today, which mostly had to deal with the tournament Elaine’s father holds for a knight to get her hand in marriage and just is another thing to this entire story that feels unnecessary to spend so much time on. I should’ve known what to expect given how lackluster the previous fight was (honestly, the Arthur and Gwen fight was so anti-climatic… I was expecting that to be such a climax for both of their characters to bring rising tensions and emotions to the surface and further develop their characters and their relationship, but nope, instead we get is Morgana pulling the moon from the sky which is pretty badass but detracts so much from the entire thing), but here we are supposed to have Lancelot be such a great fighter (and we’re told that he trained so much on Avalon) but with no explanation, Lancelot gets wounded by Galahad – seriously, there’s never a comment from Lancelot on why this slipup happen and it just undermines his entire prowess (Lancelot has faced far worse in the other stories I’ve read of him and he still preserved!). He gets shoved aside so that Gwen can have a moment to have a #GirlBoss moment and I love myself some lady knights, but this just felt so contrived. The characters start functioning more for the plot at this point at their detriment of themselves. Lancelot is a good fighter? Nah, he gets stabbed. Elaine has reservations about marrying Lancelot? Nah, she wants to go ahead with it.
The most frustrating part of it all is how fast they switch over to wanting to use magic again. I was literally saying out loud to myself “this is so stupid” (albeit with more expletives). Elaine’s entire fixation on making the right decisions just goes out the window. They seal up Gwen and Morgana’s powers and less than a few pages later Elaine’s already thinking to herself that it’s a mistake????? Hello, I thought she really thought about this stuff. What happened to having foresight? The book doesn’t even give enough time to make this change of mind find understandable it happens so fast and for forced drama in the form of having Gwen take over for Lancelot. It’s no wonder Morgana is so pissed about it. It’s barely been a day and they’re already using her magic (did Elaine not care at all when Morgana told her how losing her magic felt as if she was rotting inside???) and Elaine just goes ahead and tells Morgana about her future????? Maybe I’m being too harsh, but I think Morgana was right when she called Elaine out for it. This entire thing felt so wishy-washy. The characters can’t even be committed to the decisions that they are making. I love my books to have well-written characters, but I can even settle for a strong plot and this book doesn’t have either.
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WordPress screwed up and put my comment as it’s own thing instead of as a reply to yours??? Hopefully it’ll let me delete it 😒 I swear this site gives me so much trouble.
Okay, but yes to everything you said. And ahaha I have definitely been there before with desperately searching for negative reviews in order to validate myself in regards to my book opinions. I’ve never heard of Song of the Sparrow, I’ll have to check it out! I think Elaine of Shalott has the potential to be SUCH an interesting character. I really, really want someone to write a neurodivergent take on her, but unfortunately I sort of feel like I’m unlikely to get something like that outside of MAYBE a YA book, and I’m starting to grow out of YA.
Lol, I’ve done that before where I ignore my initial misgivings on a book and I find out that I should have trusted my instincts. I hate when that happens.
Yeah, I definitely agree. I think a lot of books that do feminism well are the ones that have it be a subtle thing in the background instead of going ‘WE HAVE FEMALE CHARACTERS THAT DO THINGS. THEY’RE GIRLBOSS. ARE YOU HAPPY YET?’ It’s genuinely kind of odd to me that so many people write misogyny poorly when it’s such a common experience for people. I understand that a lot of times bragging about how feminist your book is is a marketing thing, but I wish people would stop doing it. Let your women stand on their own instead of having to live up to some girlboss ideal.
There were ways the author could have shown that the book was limited to that one quest and then she just didn’t do any of that, lol. I kind of wonder if it would have been a better book if it had limited itself to a smaller scope? The thing about Elaine is that she DOESN’T play a big role in anyone’s life. She’s alone weaving in a tower, she dares to look beyond her tower, and then it kills her. (Or, if you draw from the medieval legends, she’s a girl who gets a crush on Lancelot, Lancelot isn’t interested, and then she dies from loves-Lancelot-disease lmao. Loving Lancelot is a dangerous occupation in an Arthurian story.) I don’t know, I just think it’s kind of nice to have a character who doesn’t matter that much on the larger scale of things but her life is still really important! Maybe you could have her learn to look beyond Lancelot and the story is about her defying fate and extricating herself from the general mess that is Camelot and making her own future! (…Shoot. Shoot I’m making myself kind of want to write an Elaine story now. I didn’t mean for this to happen.) Making Elaine central to King Arthur’s story just feels like an odd choice. Genuinely I feel like Nimue would have been a better candidate for the ‘woman who commandeers Arthur’s rise to power’ role.
Yeah uh…The hooked nose thing sure was a choice. Like come on, this was published in what, 2021? People have talked a lot about the JK Rowling antisemitic goblins thing. I doubt Laura Sebastian knew what she was doing, but also it’s not that obscure of a trope. I know about it, and I’d never claim to be the most well-read person out there.
THIS BOOK DID MORDRED SO DIRTY. I love Mordred a lot. I’ve been curious about those books too, but I’ve also been avoiding them because what if they get him wrong? The guy who got me into Arthuriana?? He’s like a son to me (okay, maybe I shouldn’t make that particular comparison with this character considering the story, but you know what I mean lmao). Will it kill you to make my son nuanced, writers? Okay, so I feel like it’s kind of weird because I have seen authors make Mordred Arthur’s brother more than once. And if you don’t want the incest thing in there, making Mordred Arthur’s nephew is an option that is RIGHT THERE and is in fact what people did pre-13th century??? I personally prefer for Mordred to be Arthur’s son because that’s the version I grew up hearing about, but I’m totally fine with the nephew option. Making him Arthur’s brother just feels weird. Like the author chose the absolute worst option and then threw in incest anyway for some reason??? (IS there a medieval story in which Mordred was Arthur’s brother? I’m definitely not ruling it out, there’re so many Arthurian stories out there. I think there’s one Scottish story where Mordred was the legitimate heir to the throne. I know making him Arthur’s nephew would be way more common than making him a brother, though.)
To be honest, I’ve read a lot of books that are marketed as a feminist retelling where I think you could literally get better feminism from reading different people’s tweets. Like sometimes it’s gets so simplistic (not to mention very white and cisgender) and it’s weird. The corset thing drove me INSANE. And then these ‘feminist retellings’ always sprinkle in a little girl hate for no reason??? What on earth was up with Morgause. Btw, if I might recommend a book, I thought Legendborn handled the social issues really well! I had my issues with it (boring male lead), but I really liked the heroine, and I thought the author was really good at writing the racism and misogyny the heroine faces. (Also this isn’t necessarily what I’d call a feminist retelling, but I really loved The Squire’s Tales series growing up. A lot of the female characters in that one were so, so good? Luneta my heart). I didn’t like what I read of Sistersong, unfortunately–I thought it was really heavy-handed with the messaging and not very interesting–but I hope it goes better for you!
The worldbuilding was so bad, I agree. But yeah you’re right, why doesn’t Elaine have any friends from Avalon?? I actually didn’t think of that. I don’t get why so many authors get weird about Avalon and/or the fey. Like it’s a cool magic island with cool magic ladies, HOW do you mess that up. Anyway, I am once again begging authors to read folklore. Also, one thing that stuck out to me that I didn’t have time to fit into my review is how Arthur conquering the neighboring countries around him was presented so uncritically? Like yeah of COURSE Guinevere’s home country should become part of England and she should have no problem with that ever! I know that medieval stories often went “and then King Arthur conquered Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, along with the rest of Europe probably, and everyone lived happily ever after 🤗” but that doesn’t mean WE have to write stuff like that without nuance. At least this is the one part where placing the world into more of a fantasy world inspired by England sort of worked in its favor, but I still just think it’s a bad look all around???
You’re right about the characters getting progressively worse, it was really bad 😣 Everyone was so flat. To be honest, I completely forgot about the tournament, which I think says a lot about how little it mattered to the story. Like that’s your character deciding to get married? That should matter more than it did! Wait. Wait, Galahad showed up? He’s Lancelot’s son. How is that supposed to…I swear every time I think I can’t get more confused about the family trees in this book, it throws something else at me, even after I finish it.
Also, I am getting so, so sidetracked here, but speaking of weird things about Lancelot, one of the things about this book that just bemuses me is the idea that Lancelot would have married Elaine and been unfaithful. Obviously with the disclaimer that it’s a retelling and Laura Sebastian can do whatever she wants, but in basically every legend with Lancelot that I’ve read, he’s very, very faithful to Guinevere. Sure, he wore Elaine’s token to a tournament so that he wouldn’t be recognized, but I don’t remember him doing anything else to lead her on. The only people who aren’t Guinevere that he falls in love with were men, but I guess you’d have to write him as not straight. Horror of horrors. (To be clear, it’s never outright stated that he falls in love with men, of course, but basically he and this guy named Galehaut are really, really queer-coded in the Vulgate Cycle. He and Gawain are also queer-coded in the same story I think? Gawain tells Lancelot that he wishes he were a beautiful woman so that Lancelot would fall in love with him lmao.) It’s definitely possible that Lancelot fell in love with a girl who wasn’t Guinevere in some story, because like I said, there are a lot of Arthurian stories out there, but I don’t think it’s that common. He’s not a player, it’s just that he only falls in love with the people he can’t have. I’ve got a lot of feelings about Arthuriana as a queer person and seeing Lancelot inevitably get screwed up by a modern author just irritates me a lot. Not as much as when Gawain gets screwed up, though. (Why does Gawain keep getting written out of modern adaptations, it’s so frustrating. Give me my charismatic slightly amoral queer-coded knight who keeps getting himself into increasingly bizarre situations. I Want him.)
Elaine really screwed Morgan and Guinevere over, it was awful. Like it’s fine to take Morgan’s magic and agency away from her, but once something goes a little wrong for Elaine, suddenly Elaine HAS to use magic! She’s responsible, she knows best about how to use Morgan’s magic! But yeah I think it could have worked if it had been the culmination of a character flaw. It’d make sense that Elaine would have trouble with controlling other people, considering that she sees the future. But it kind of comes completely out of nowhere. I support selfish women, but that was just ANNOYING.
Thank you for your comment, btw! I love excuses to rant about Arthuriana at length.
I have since finished “Half Sick of Shadows” since last venting my frustrations and I was right yet again that that book would not be able to wrap up in a way that would at least have the ending leaving a positive impression on me, but at that point I wasn’t very invested anymore and I have since returned the copy I had to the library so I don’t have it on hand to pull up anything and will have to rely on my wonky memory, but it did have me wanting to read “Song of the Sparrow” again so I have started on that. I do have a lot of fondness for it since I read it in my childhood, but a couple of years ago, I read it again and it still held up to me and the only complaint I really had was that one of the characters basically had a “I’m being friendzoned” complaint which made them slightly less appealing than I had found them in the past. It’s not a perfect book, but I think it’s better than “Half Sick of Shadows” because I like Elaine’s character at least. It’s also such a stark difference in how well-developed the relationships are in that book in comparison to “Half Sick of Shadows.” For example, her relationship with her brothers feels so much more real than whatever’s in “Half Sick of Shadows.” (It also handles the relationships between the female characters better in my opinion.) ((And it takes place during the dark ages which is probably why “Half Sick of Shadow” threw me off at first.)) “Song of the Sparrow” isn’t conventionally written though, it has a lyrical form to it as opposed to a prose form, so that might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
“I’ve done that before where I ignore my initial misgivings on a book and I find out that I should have trusted my instincts. I hate when that happens.”
More often than not this happens and it’s rare that I’m wrong… Wish I could be satisfied with more things that I read… This was only a recent addition to the list unfortunately.
“I think a lot of books that do feminism well are the ones that have it be a subtle thing in the background instead of going ‘WE HAVE FEMALE CHARACTERS THAT DO THINGS. THEY’RE GIRLBOSS. ARE YOU HAPPY YET?’”
EXACTLY. We’re getting wrapped up in a time where what’s being asked for in how girls and women are depicted in media for is getting mixed up with this idea of the Strong Female Character where her strength and “I take no shit from anyone” attitude is supposed to be the end all be all, but it never allows any room for these characters to have more nuance and you just end up running into the same trope over and over again and this book didn’t really do anything new for me. It’s so focused on having Elaine and Gwen and Morgana be girl bosses that even when they’re having more vulnerable moments it’s missing something genuine to me.
I’m glad the corset thing wasn’t annoying just me. It feels so lazy. And I’m not against girl hate because female characters being at conflict with one another can happen. It’d feel off if they got along with each other every time everywhere, but I would like it to have some good reasoning and – in a best case scenario – progress upward from there with the opposing sides eventually coming to understand one another, but the thing with Morgause was always just so catty on both their ends and Morgause’s only character trait is “mean” like there’s some complexity in there with her acting the way she does because she’s afraid and wants to have the upper hand, but the book doesn’t do anything compelling with that. I do hope that I will like “Sistersong” and I’ll have to add “The Squire’s Tales” to my list.
“Making Elaine central to King Arthur’s story just feels like an odd choice. Genuinely I feel like Nimue would have been a better candidate for the ‘woman who commandeers Arthur’s rise to power’ role.”
Nodding to everything you said in this particular paragraph, but just pointing this part out specifically because this is something I agree with but that slipped from my mind. It just did feel odd to me to have Elaine written this way. Of course, it makes sense since Arthur is the central figure of these myths so having her play such a big role in helping him to the throne would feel important so I get why the author would’ve gone down this route but it just does feel like a new character is being written and I was slightly caught off guard with this depiction of Elaine since it contrasts so much against the one I am familiar with. Not even saying that Elaine has to be the Elaine in the Tennyson poem to be accurate, but this book didn’t do this reimagining in a very compelling way and I agree with the route you suggested. That would make for a more interesting story. It’d be a refreshing take but wouldn’t feel so jarring to have to read about.
On Mordred: First off, I realize I misspelled his name way too many times in my previous comment… That’s going to be something I’ll have to live with, but yeah, this book really did him dirty. If it’s going to have him be some one-dimensional villain it didn’t even do that right since the book doesn’t fully commit to it and Mordred doesn’t even matter in the last half of the book aside from being some distant obstacle to the throne. Given how Elaine can see the future, it makes sense why she’d be against him being king, but I wasn’t into Mordred having no nuance and I would like to think that Elizabeth Wein and Nancy Springer treat him better especially given how he’s the protagonist of those books and the latter would have him dealing with what he’s fated to become. I’ve never really read a book with him as the main character before, but I need a palette cleanser after “Half Sick of Shadows.” Feel free to recommend any good ones about him if you want! But on the note of the incest: Yeah, the book just wants to make Arthur someone who has done no wrong or doesn’t have any major regrets I suppose, but apparently the book needed to have the incest somehow. And it’s just used to make Morgause and Mordred even worse and give another reason to look down on them and it rubs me the wrong way. Elaine even insults Morgause with this at some point and it had me rolling my eyes to myself wondering if they’re in high school or something it just felt so immature. It made me feel like I was watching a weird version “Mean Girls” or something.
“One thing that stuck out to me that I didn’t have time to fit into my review is how Arthur conquering the neighboring countries around him was presented so uncritically.” Good point! Arthur is always painted in such a positive light and while I do like Arthur as a heroic figure, it’s always interesting when there’s complexity in the mix. Sure, there’s a lot of good things about his character, but you can also find a lot of things to critique. Now I’m thinking about “The Buried Giant” since it called Arthur’s actions into question (along with it just being an absolutely great read that I was lucky to come across last year). And I think Galahad – like “Elaine” – is a common name in Arthurian mythology, so I didn’t think too much about Galahad being the one to wound Lancelot in the fight (isn’t Lancelot’s real name also supposed to be Galahad according to some sources?), but it’s just weird how much the book focuses on how Lancelot is a “player.” I don’t know, it feels kinda slutshame-y in a way??? And it’s such a defining character trait and apparently Lancelot is only “good” once he settles down and commits to Elaine. Not completely decided on where I’m going at with that, but it just made me not that big of a fan of Elaine. There’s always this underlying judgement when she talks about it. Also, yeah, Lancelot is 100% bisexual in my mind but I imagine it’d be difficult to find books that include him also falling in love with men. (Although I have “Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles” on my to read list for a reason.) At least there could’ve actually been something compelling with him and Gwen in this book but it also sucks any chance of that from it as well, so things just feel flat yet again. There’s no tragedy to it.
“It’s fine to take Morgan’s magic and agency away from her, but once something goes a little wrong for Elaine, suddenly Elaine HAS to use magic!”
UGH, my thoughts exactly! She also proceeds to panic about not being able to give them back their magic, which wouldn’t have been an issue if this was going to be a long-term thing and she gave herself time to figure it out, but nooooo, since she needs to give them back their magic as soon as possible, suddenly she’s panicking about this like forget their plan to give magic back once the kingdom was more accepting of it. That just went out the window and this entire thing only happens to lead up to the ending to give reason for why Elaine does what she does. I wasn’t buying it.
Anyway, I’d be lying if I said I made a conscious effort to keep my word count here to a minimum. You just made even better comments that I wanted to respond to or piggyback on. Don’t feel like you have to reply to this. I’m just wordy and couldn’t help myself.
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