Erika Tracy, Half-Sick of Shadows. Shadowfire Press, 2010. Pp. 62. e-Book $3.75.Reviewed by Sam Kelly
This novella is a tricky thing, and every time it looks as though it’s settled on a set of tropes then it turns a corner and becomes something else. The evacuee child arriving in a strange new place that isn’t the magical fairyland she expected, but instead a grim mining village... the child going to live with her mysterious magic relatives in their rambling gothic house... the talented teenager finding her place among other witches and among normal people... real fears and imagined ones, and learning to tell the difference...
There are a couple of strands running right through the tale, though; one of them is the idea of difference and prejudice. Witches and warlocks are feared and tolerated, the victims of bullying and casual prejudice; it’s easy to draw an analogy to Jews, given the World War II setting. The other is the relationships between men and women, made sharp and tense by tradition, poverty, and fear.
Magic is presented as a very feminine thing throughout the book. There are warlocks, we’re told, but we never see or hear from an adult warlock, and all the uses of magic we see are for very traditional womanly things—there’s even a spell for washing up, and another to cover the signs of domestic abuse. It’s explicitly contrasted to coal-mining, which is a masculine occupation; it’s the only thing the two men in this horribly dysfunctional family can bond over. As in all mining villages, the pit is the centre of life in Glynarien, and the rescue efforts when a shaft collapses are the only communal purpose we see. Of course, there’s a lot that our protagonist, doubly an outsider, doesn’t see; it’s as though once she’s made the decision to marry, her life outside the home is gone, and all we see is the isolation and depression of a foreign pit wife as her relationship with family withers and twists.
The PDF design is acceptable enough, with a readable font at a sensible point size, and the cover shows a predictable landscape-and-faces montage. It’s very clearly a modern British village street, not a 1940s one, but I can forgive a lot for a relationship novel with a man and a woman on the cover, both looking directly at the reader.
The world-building is good but sparse, with sketched details showing us the shape of a society; the Welsh names ring true-enough, if not perfect, and the social exclusions are all the more real for what we aren’t shown. This isn’t the Celtic-twilight, English-children-on-holiday Arthurian Wales of so many books; it’s the real working-class, churchgoing land.
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