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 come–for 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 friends–countless 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 destiny–and what she is willing to sacrifice along the way.Amazon
I am so relieved.
I am here to say that this trend has come to a fantastic end with this great book!
Aka Setting and Tone: The book is set in the mythical Albion/Camelot/Avalon etc. It is a darker version of the Arthurian legend, this time from the point of view of Elaine (Elaine the Mad or The Lady of Shalott). In many versions of the Arthurian legends, she is a footnote or the example of proper femininity (cloistered away, non-threatening, more virgin than whore), and her magic, if she is given any, is an afterthought.
Not so in this book! She has magic… lots of people have magic. This is a high fantasy magic book that veers off into some delightful directions. More on that in a moment, but I want to say right up front that I love the idea of retelling a story (that we are all at least vaguely familiar with) in a new and provocative way. I also like wrestling with the ideas of fate, the “good” or “bad” uses of magic, self-determinism, prophecy, and free will. I personally find those ideas super interesting and love it when characters discuss and deal with them.
Also, this book is feminist AF. Which, you know, yay!
Like I said, we are in the first-person point of view of Elaine but Sebastian has decided to really lean into the wibbly-wobbly framework of time and there are a ton of flashbacks, flash-forwards, dreams that are prophecy, and so on. There are times when the narrative line is muddled but that is intentional as our main character herself sometimes seems to have a hard time knowing where in time she is… never mind that some of the futures she sees are just possible futures and might not be real. I really feel like Sebastian used this narrative device to its fullest potential even if for the first half of the book I felt a tad grumpy when we got yet another flashback. If I was a bit annoyed, I can only imagine how frustrating it would be for Elaine to live like that… and I am pretty sure that was the point of writing the book in this way. Our sympathy with Elaine never wavers even as she makes some choices that are hard to understand.
Besides the time shifts, the writing is clear and there are enough world-building details but we aren’t overwhelmed… because we don’t need to be. There are not a whole lot of descriptions but the book is saturated with dialogue and thoughts. Also, it is a fairly long book -my hard-bound copy is over 400 pages- so I am not complaining that we didn’t hear what everything looked like. I think we got enough but if lush poetic descriptions are your thing, you might be disappointed.
I won’t spoil, but holy smokes I LOVE what Sebastian has done with these tried and true and sometimes boring characters from legend. Arthur, Lancelot… fine. They are pretty much what you expect. Even Merlin, Nimue, Mordred, Morgause… even Morgana are highly recognizable… but Elaine? Guinevere? Gobsmacked. Truly.
I really liked these characters and the world they lived in. I also really appreciate that the idea of a villain is not really here, but rather there are antagonists because even those “villans” have a point of view that is at least somewhat valid and understandable. Everyone is multi-dimensional (ok, except maybe Mordred, but he isn’t anything more than a stock bad guy filling a role.) So, everyone we spend time with, the characters that count, are multi-dimensional and sympathetic.
Again, this is a retelling of the Arthurian legend so you will probably start reading with some pretty basic and understandable preconceived notions of what is going to happen. I felt the same way. All I will say is that we would be totally right and also completely wrong. Which Is Awesome.
Note: There are prophecies and therefore scenes that happen but then don’t happen. I love the idea of taking a narrator and making her unreliable not because she is typing to obfuscate but because her own brain is constantly messing with her… but I can understand how some people might get confused as to what is actually happening sometimes.
On another note, the ending of this book came super fast, and even though it wraps things up and gets us to where we need to be… it also made me want to immediately reread it with my new knowledge of how it was going to end… which… for a book all about prophecy and knowing the ending (possible ending?) is a pretty neat trick.
Highly. Again, you think you know the legend… but this is a new spin and it is totally engaging.
There were a few points where the action seemed to stall and we spent maybe too much time in flashback land, but those flashbacks were relevant and helped to create a pretty extensive tapestry of character motivations and plot, so they are pretty much forgiven. Like I said before, the ending seemed to come rather fast but it also made perfect sense and I loved it.
Why THIS Book?
I love the Arthurian legends in their various retold forms. Reading The Mists of Avalon was life-changing for me. Watching the miniseries was as well. I liked the very very corny Merlin. I have read the TH White book, the Deepak Chopra book, and several other versions as well over the years – yes I love the Disney version and that one from the 80s too. So of course I was drawn to this book and wanted to read it. I was also really hoping it could break me out of my disappointing reads funk.
Would I recommend it?
YES. If you like the Arthurian legends, if you like the Arthurian legends but wish they were more feminist, if you like the Arthurian legends and the feminist retellings of Bradley but feel weird about reading Bradley in this day and age, if you like the Arthurian legends but wish they could be attainable to the here and now, if you like the Arthurian legends but want even more supernatural elements including (censored but omg Whhhaaaa…..???!!!!)… If you don’t care about the Arthurian legend stuff but you like historical or fantasy or feminist or kinda trippy… Yes! I highly recommend this book
Quick caveat: If constant shifts in time and passages that don’t actually happen bother you, then you might want to skip or read slowly… or maybe just try to let it all wash over you and trust the process… I think you will find it rewarding in the end.
Last note: I don’t always read the author’s note or the afterward. But this time I did and I almost wish it was placed at the beginning of the book so that everyone could read it, at least in part. I highly recommend that you skip to the very very back and read the Afterword before you read the book. It will help set the tone and get you excited for the journey you are about to embark on.
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This? Why did I read *This* book?