A Popsugar Best Summer Read of 2021
A Bibliolifestyle Most Anticipated Summer 2021 Sci-fi and Fantasy Book
"Magical, haunting, uniqueI haven't been so excited about an Arthur book since I read The Once and Future King ."Tamora Pierce, #1 New York Times bestselling author
The Lady of Shalott reclaims her story in this bold feminist reimagining of the Arthurian myth from the New York Times bestselling author of Ash Princess.
Everyone knows the legend. Of Arthur, destined to be a king. Of the beautiful Guinevere, who will betray him with his most loyal knight, Lancelot. Of the bitter sorceress, Morgana, who will turn against them all. But Elaine alone carries the burden of knowing what is to comefor Elaine of Shalott is cursed to see the future.
On the mystical isle of Avalon, Elaine runs free and learns of the ancient prophecies surrounding her and her friendscountless possibilities, almost all of them tragic.
When their future comes to claim them, Elaine, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Morgana accompany Arthur to take his throne in stifling Camelot, where magic is outlawed, the rules of society chain them, and enemies are everywhere. Yet the most dangerous threats may come from within their own circle.
As visions are fulfilled and an inevitable fate closes in, Elaine must decide how far she will go to change destinyand what she is willing to sacrifice along the way.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.80(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I will die drowning; it has always been known. This was my first vision, long before I knew it for what it was, and I've had it so many times now that I know each instant by heart. Where most visions are ephemeral things, shifting and changing in different lights and at different angles, this one is always so solid that it leaves its bruises on my mind and soul long after it ends.
The water will be cold against my skin. It will rush around me like a storm, tearing my hair in different directions until it clouds my vision. I won't be able to see a thing. I will want to kick up to the surface, to breathe the air I know is only a few meters away, but I will stay frozen and sink lower and lower in my whirlpool until my feet finally touch soft sand. My eyes will be closed, and everything around me will be darkness.
My lungs will burn, burn, burn until I fear they are going to burst. The surface will be so close, I could reach it if I just kick up . . . but I won't. I won't want to.
In a week or a year or a decade, I will die drowning. When I do, it will be a choice.
There is peace at the loom, in the steady rhythm of my fingers dancing over the silk strands like a musician with a lyre, peace in the threads weaving in and out, in the future revealing itself to me stitch by stitch, possibility by possibility. Such small movements, repeated again and again and again, each one small and meaningless on its own-but when the tapestry begins to take shape and tell its story, the infinitesimal becomes infinite.
As a child in Shalott, I learned how to change the color of the threads to render an image, frozen forever in time, but now I use only white. The magic-imbued strands glisten like opal in the afternoon sunlight that filters into my workroom through the oversized window.
Outside, the staggering cliff my cottage sits on juts out over rolling, pearl-tipped waves. They crash against Avalon's shore, the sound loud enough to reach me even in my cottage, but I don't mind it. The steady sound soothes my mind, turning it soft and malleable and blank, receptive to the magic that buzzes its way through me from my fingertips to my toes.
I keep my eyes on the threads, watching them weave together tight and solid, the waves pounding in my ears and chasing all thoughts away so that nothing exists at all outside of me in this moment-not Avalon or my friends, not the past or the futures fracturing before me like cracks in glass. Only me, only now.
The expanse of whiteness begins to shift, like shadows dancing across it, rippling over its shining surface. The threads vibrate softly beneath my fingers, emitting a glow all their own. I feel the change throughout my body as well, something unnamable tugging at my skin and sparking in my mind, threatening to pull me into it, into whatever the Sight wants me to see.
Though I've had hundreds if not thousands of visions over the last ten years, I don't think I will ever grow used to this feeling: how for just a moment, my body and my mind cease to be my own.
A rattling knock yanks me out of it, my fingers stilling against the white silk strands. I settle into myself once more, and the world around me suddenly feels too sharp, too bright, too real.
I look up, letting my eyes focus and adjust, and find him standing on the other side of my window, his knuckles still resting against the glass and a mischievous smile playing on his full lips. In the light of the Avalon sun, he is pure gold.
"Come on, Shalott," he says, his voice muffled through the glass. He jerks his head backward toward the beach, windblown black hair glinting in the sunlight. Behind him, I can just make out the other three, all beckoning me to join them, to spend the day on the beach, enjoying the sunshine and the sea. "It's too nice a day to waste cooped up inside."
Every day in Avalon is too nice to waste cooped up inside, I want to tell him, but some of us don't have much of a choice in the matter.
"Give me an hour," I say instead.
His bright green eyes crinkle, as if he knows it's a lie, but he shrugs his shoulders and turns away from me, his hand going to rest casually on the pommel of the sword sheathed at his hip. When he reaches the others, the four of them wave to me and I wave back.
You mustn't strain yourself, Nimue always says when she finds me here in the mornings, bleary-eyed and dazed. Seers go mad that way.
But sometimes it feels like I'll go mad if I stay away from the loom too long. Sometimes it feels like scrying is the only thing keeping me sane.
I watch them walk down the beach with a pang in my chest. Arthur and Guinevere are hand in hand, and though I can't see his face, I know he's blushing, like he always does around Gwen. Morgana leans over to say something in her brother's ear, and Arthur gives her shoulder a shove, making her laugh, her head thrown back, ink-black hair spilling down her back. Lancelot watches the two of them, shaking his head before glancing over his shoulder back at me, his green eyes colliding with mine again.
"One hour," I say again, and though he can't hear me, he must read my lips, because he nods.
Part of me wants to run after them and leave the loom behind for today, even forever, before it ruins me. But I can't do that, so I go back to my weaving, picking up the threads once more.
This time when the vision takes hold of me, there are no interruptions and I tumble into it headfirst.
Morgana, don't do this, please.Ó
The voice isn't mine, but it will be one day, panicked and desperate and frightened. The small room will be made from shadow and stone, lit only by a few scattered candles, burning down to little more than puddles of wax. In the dim light, the pupils of Morgana's eyes will be huge, making her look manic as she flits around her room, pulling bottles down from their shelves and uncorking them to sniff or pinch or dump completely into the bubbling cauldron. Her ink-black hair will be unbound and wild, following her around like a storm cloud. Whenever a piece of it drifts into her face, she will blow it away in an annoyed huff, but that will be the only sound she makes. She won't speak to me. She won't even look at me.
Cold air will bite at my skin, the smell of sulfur seeping into the air from the potion brewing. Without a word, I know that whatever potion Morgana is brewing isn't only dangerous. It's lethal.
"Morgana," I will try again, my voice cracking over her name. Still, she won't acknowledge me. Not until I touch her shoulder. She will flinch away, but at least she will look at me, violet eyes hard and distant even when they meet mine.
She will not be the Morgana I know now, the Morgana who was my first friend, who has stood by my side unfalteringly since I was thirteen years old.
"This cannot stand, Elaine." Her voice will be calm and resolved, at odds with the chaos in her body, the storm in her expression. "The things Arthur has done-"
The words conjure nothing in my mind-no memory, no image, no thought at all. I don't know what Arthur has done to earn Morgana's rage, but it must have been something truly terrible.
"He has done what he believes best." It's a line that will feel familiar on my tongue, like I have spoken it many times. I will believe the words with every part of me.
Morgana pulls away from me, making a sound that is half-laugh and half-sob.
"Then you think Arthur a fool, Elaine? You think he didn't know exactly what he was doing? What is worse-to have a foolish king or a cruel one?"
Her eyes on mine will burn until I have to look away, unable to defend Arthur for the first time in my life.
"Which do you think it was?" she will continue, and I realize the question isn't rhetorical. She wants an answer. "Is he stupidly noble, or is there a conniving side under all of that quiet erudition?"
"Arthur loves you," I say, because I won't know what other answer to give. It will be one of the only true things I will know, but that doesn't mean it makes her beliefs untrue. I don't know how the two things can be unassailable facts, but somehow, they are.
She will scoff and turn away from me, unstoppering a bottle and letting the shadow of a serpent slither out into the sizzling cauldron. It will die with a shriek that echoes in the silence between us.
"And you?" I will ask her when I find my voice again. "He's your brother, and I know you love him. How can you even consider doing this to him?"
She will begin to turn away, but I will grab her hands in mine, holding tight and forcing her to look at me.
"The boy you teased mercilessly when his voice began to change? The one who still turns red in the cheeks every time Gwen smiles at him? The one who has taken your side against every courtier in this palace who wanted you banished or worse? If you do this, Morgana, there is no coming back. I have Seen this path, I have Seen this moment, and I am begging you not to do it, not to break us into pieces that we will never be able to mend."
Her hands will go slack in mine, and she will falter. For an instant, she will look once more like the Morgana I have always known, her vulnerabilities like sunlight slatting through a boarded-up window.
She will open her mouth to speak and-
When I come out of the vision, my eyes take a moment to readjust, to take in the tapestry stretched over the loom, showing a jet-haired women bent over a cauldron, staring intently into its depths, while another woman with fair hair watches on, hands clasped in front of her.
It's easier to see it this way than to be in the vision itself. Like this, there is some stretch of distance, some ability to pretend that they are just two strangers, not Morgana and me. It's easy to pretend that they are brewing a love potion or a healing draught, that they are discussing the effect the recent storm will have on their crops.
The first time I had this vision was in a dream, before I mastered the art of channeling them onto the loom. It was disjointed and unfocused, difficult to remember when I woke up. Through the loom, I'm able to focus better, and when it is done, I'm left with this: an image, solid and real.
"The poison scene again," a voice says from behind me, and I turn to see Nimue standing in the open doorframe, leaning against it. Her silver gown spills over her umber skin like water, skimming closely over her curves and leaving her shoulders bare.
I've been in Avalon for ten years now, and I still can't help but think that if she were to wear something like that in Camelot, she would end up stoned to death. But we are not in Camelot, we are in Avalon, and Nimue is the Lady of the Lake. She can wear whatever she likes.
I step away from the loom to give her a better look, though she hardly needs one. She's right-I've had this same vision before, too many times to rightly remember. It's always a little different, a little broader or narrower, a little longer or shorter-a reflection in a rippling pond, Nimue told me during one of my first lessons-but the same shape, more or less.
"The potion smelled of sulfur this time," I tell her, closing my eyes to better remember the smaller details, the ones that matter the most. "And there was something she put into it-the shadow of a serpent, it looked like."
Nimue says nothing for a moment. In the bright room of my studio, the burnished silver circlet around her bald head glows. Her mouth turns down at the corners as she considers my words, considers the tapestry before her. She reaches out to touch it, and as she does, it begins to turn white once more, the image erasing as if it never existed at all. It is a dangerous thing, to leave such blatant evidence of visions lying about. If Morgana were to see it, she would have questions I would never be able to answer. Besides, the only people who need to know about the vision are Nimue and me, and the scene is likely burned into our memories by now.
But I told Morgana about what I'd Seen in the vision, or at least insinuated it. I always do, in every iteration.
"Davaralocke," Nimue says finally, interrupting my thoughts. "A poison-you were right. And among the deadliest when brewed correctly."
I shake my head. "That's just it . . . the way she was brewing it . . . I've seen Morgana brew potions before. You know, you taught her-she's meticulous to a fault. But this time, she was careless. Throwing ingredients in by the handful or jar even, not measuring, not following a recipe at all, really."
Nimue makes a thoughtful noise in her throat before turning to look at me.
"And the end of it?" she asks me. "Did it change at all?"
I shake my head. "It ended just as it always does: It felt like maybe I got through to her, like I'd changed her mind, but it ended before I could say for sure."
For a moment, Nimue doesn't speak. "Do you know why you keep seeing this vision, more than any other?"
"Because it's important," I say automatically. It was one of the first things Nimue taught me when I came to Avalon, but now she simply shrugs her shoulders.
"Yes, but that's not the entire truth," she says. "It's because everything comes down to a choice that hasn't been made yet, a choice the future of our world hangs on. One choice, from one girl."
Reading Group Guide
Half Sick of Shadows by Laura Sebastian
1. At the center of the book is the friendship between Elaine, Morgana, and Guinevere—three very different women. Were there any aspects of their relationship that you identified with?
2. Nimue refers to Elaine and Morgana as “two sides of the same coin.” What does she mean by this? Do you agree?
3. One of the larger themes of the book is fate. How much of a role do you think fate played in Elaine’s story versus her own choices? Do you believe in fate?
4. Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair is one of the best known aspects of Arthurian mythology, though it only exists on the periphery here. Why do you think that is? Can you still see their affair taking place?
5. Elaine’s relationship with her mother is unequivocally abusive, but Elaine still struggles with guilt over leaving her, even though her own safety was at risk. Because her mother dies before Elaine can see her again, Elaine never gets closure. What do you think she would say to her mother if given the chance?
6. Nimue channels prophecies through the scrying mirror, while Elaine uses the loom and her mother’s prophecies come out in verse. How would you like to see the future?
7. Elaine returns to Camelot a very different person than she was when she left. How does this affect the way she sees the city, its inhabitants, and herself? Can you think of a time when you felt the same way?
8. Lancelot and Elaine go through many ups and downs from their first meeting to their last. Do you think Elaine’s visions were their biggest obstacle? If she hadn’t Seen every way they broke each other’s hearts, do you think they could have been happy, or were they doomed from the start?
9. Over the course of the book, Morgana and Elaine say and do things to each other that seem unforgivable. Though they make up in the end, how do you imagine their friendship might change going forward on Avalon, especially in their new roles with the power dynamic between them so changed?
10. The ending is left somewhat open. Do you believe Elaine’s final vision of her, Gwen, and Morgana returning Arthur to Avalon will come to pass? What do you think will happen afterward?