Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy
by Richard Abbott
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In the first half of the twentieth century, Victorian poetry began to be marginalized by the developing field of scholarly literary criticism, which focused on works fitting complex parameters requiring a rather esoteric body of knowledge for successful interpretation. Earlier poets such as Tennyson, whose works were written for and appealed to a broader readership, fell out of favor.
Perhaps post-war audiences “re-discovered” Victorian poetry once it was realized that it often actually integrated and entailed some of the elements it had been criticized for lacking. Given its enduring Arthurian theme, it is no surprise then, that amongst Tennyson’s work, “The Lady of Shalott” should be one of the first rising to resurgence in popularity: countlessly anthologized and appearing in numerous cultural contexts (video, music, theater, art, literature and more) even into our own time nearly 200 years after publication, it provokes wider analysis and re-interpretation than much modernist poetry, whose seemingly impenetrable nature often contributes to its own dismissal, despite its aim of getting people to culture up. While this is a worthy goal and there certainly is no shortage of study for early twentieth-century poetry, it disregards the lesson Tennyson already understood: holding something out of people’s reach won’t allow them to grasp it any easier.
Contemporary author Richard Abbott takes this one step further by incorporating his own already popular literary bents—historical and science fiction—into a highly accessible re-interpretation of Tennyson’s masterpiece, itself based on the life of Elaine of Astolat, a tragic figure within the Arthurian catalogue. Written in prose and sectioned off a few more times than “The Lady of Shalott,” Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows takes us into a world of beauty and cruelty, loving and longing, a world of isolation in which the Lady yearns for her own voice and must choose which sacrifice to perform.
Significantly, Abbott opens Half Sick of Shadows with an awakening, though it is veiled by a “kindly darkness” and marked as the Lady’s birth. It is as smooth and relaxed as Tennyson’s own lead-in, “On either side of the river lie/Long fields of barley and rye,” as it initiates the creation and, later, upbringing, so to speak, of an infant and then adolescent who will be the Lady villagers come to know by way of her song. She, in turn, learns about them via her second-hand observations of the people in a mirror housed with her, and to which she eventually begins to talk and, later, question. Their communication is of the telepathic sort, at least the expressive language is on the part of the mirror, which the Lady silently receives.
The metamorphosis of this re-telling gifts readers the feeling that they are receiving the Lady’s story for the very first time. For those familiar with Abbott’s previous work, the historical may be an expected element, but the speculative angle is a definitive bonus, and done with a subtly that enhances rather than reduces the Arthurian and historical within Tennyson’s version. There is a machination about the mirror, in its gathering of data as the Lady sleeps between instars, or growth states, and during her acquisition of knowledge, and periodically we hear a word or phrase (e.g. gibbous) that injects the story with a small flavor of the author’s previous forays into a galactical colony. Indeed, the Lady travels through time and space as “[s]he ate, and she slept, and she changed[,]” as “[t]he world outside, with its fleeting years, took no notice of her sleep, and changed even more rapidly than she did.” These centuries of growth bring her from a time before people existed and “[n]obody was watching” through the eras until settling into the Arthurian, widening the form of science fiction the book engages.
For me, this speaks volumes about Abbott’s ability to transition from genre to genre: he clearly is comfortable writing in a variety, and with Half Sick of Shadows we see this taken to another level as he combines it into one: history, mythology, fantasy and speculative. Perhaps some might even add mystery and/or romance, for the Lady catches a glimpse of Lancelot in her mirror, and from then on everything she acts upon, whether in pragmatic caution or foolish abandon, is in response to the spell she knows she is under, a magic that will destroy her should she try to look directly at the world outside. The manner in which Abbott expands upon the Lady’s life and events within, simultaneously breaking ground while remaining true to Tennyson as he retains the spiritual within the legends of Camelot, is inspiring and captivating. The imagery and descriptive language is economic yet rich.
As she grows, so too do the Lady’s awareness, needs, questions, demands and reaching out to the larger world. She observes and bonds, solitary as the association is, with a prehistoric family whose habits she admires and thrills to. It is this family whose actions first lend her an unarticulated awareness of herself as a shadow, only half existing, a theme that permeates the novella along with the idea of voice in its physical form and as metaphor. Upon re-awakening from one of her sleep phases, she comes to realize that the nature of the world’s growth and movement forward necessitates forfeiture, though awareness make it no less difficult. She laments her loss and fate within her existence, and one of Abbott’s most poignant passages gives new voice, as it were, to the idea of futility of life within isolation. Having already questioned the purpose of knowing how to speak if there was no one to listen,
[s]he noticed the Mirror’s stream of information falter and then, almost immediately, restart when she spoke of her beginnings. This, then, was the source of the deception. A little tingle of anxiety pattered inside her … Outside of these walls neither person, nor bird, nor animal could properly see her. Perhaps in truth she was no more than a fiction, an incorporeal figment, no more than someone else’s projection. Her fretful feet rattled on the floor, until she seized on a memory of song, a memory of the last time around.
Surely I am like them? Surely I am as real as they are? I am not just a shadow. I am not.
She felt a tentative acceptance from the Mirror, but knew that it was still holding something back. The truth she was given was always partial, always qualified. She flung herself full-length on the couch and … screamed at the unresponsive face in front of her.
“I’m half sick of shadows.”
It is significant that the author utilizes this most famous of all “Lady of Shalott” lines to so masterfully illustrate the power of powerlessness, which might at times contain a wealth of talented, gorgeous magnificence waiting for the freedom to flourish, or the explosive consequences of destruction felt by some in history forced into idleness as a way of life (women), or blocked from society (poets), a lifetime of being thwarted by doubt and questioning by individuals of how real they actually are. The inscrutable, vexing shadows may eventually drive the Lady to one rupture or the other—determined productivity or her own end—and the growth of Abbott’s protagonist as well as the narrative itself as it progresses, contains an additional message within as to the value of any given circumstance and whose purpose it serves.
One easily noticeable trait about Half Sick of Shadows is that there is very little dialogue. It is only recently that this reviewer discovered how much stronger this can render a well-told tale, and in this case such a possibility rings absolutely true. Abbott’s technique of utilizing the omnipotent observer—in some stories a gamble that may not always pay—works perfectly, and contains a silence and mystery to the feel of the tale as we move through, lending substance and support to the Lady’s feelings of loneliness and anguish following her efforts to oblige the mirror to answer her and later, access others to interact with her.
While quite different to such a work as The Metamorphosis, which also experiences very little dialogue and involves a character cut off from others but remaining cognizant of life and events around him, Abbott throughout expertly utilizes allusion in form and narrative, including when the Lady “become[s] desperate with the need to speak and be spoken to.” As in Kafka’s great classic, the theme of voice is part of how the author explores the meaning of being alive and aware as psychological and physical change occurs.
She knew that her voice was high, reed-like compared to any of his own people, and that she could not form the words properly. The parts of her mouth and throat would not allow anything closer. But it was better than nothing[.]
One needn’t be familiar at all with Tennyson or Kafka to appreciate, understand and thoroughly enjoy Half Sick of Shadows, an amazing study as much as it is pleasing story. Whether re-visiting or new to the legend, readers will cherish Abbott’s novella, an original and enthralling re-telling suitable to current sensibilities, with a blend of Victorian sensory and critical, and the Modernist aim to further pique cultural curiosity. It is a merger in which Abbott splendidly succeeds.
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Click titles to read our reviews for Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports or Timing.
For more on “The Lady of Shalott,” please click here.
About the author…
Richard Abbott writes fiction of several varieties, including both historical and speculative fiction. His historical is set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. It explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.
His heretofore speculative writing is set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships.
Far from the Spaceports introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.
Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.
When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.
You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.
A copy of Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
Author photo courtesy Richard Abbott