I liked this quiet and gentle novel, like everything else by this writer. She is one of my favorites across the genres. Her unique, dainty blend of fantasy and romance always combines several important themes, as does this novel.
On the surface, it is a love story of Karadel. She is a twenty-something shape-shifter, living in the modern US, working as a vet. Unlike many current literary shape-shifters (Patricia Briggs comes to mind), in Sharon Shinn’s world, Karadel and her brethren can’t always command when they shift and into what. They live among humans in secret, always dreading the day when their secret might escape.
While gay people and other minorities embrace their differences and struggle to live openly, at least in a civilized society, most of Karadel’s shifter friends don’t want to come out of the closet. They are terrified of consequences. What would happen, if their secret is revealed? Maybe witch hunts. Maybe secret government laboratories. Neither possibility is pretty.
For some of Karadel’s friends, the shifts are easier: they only shift into one animal every few days. For others, including Karadel, it’s harder: she doesn’t know what shape she would take in any given shift and when it’s going to occur. In her life, she has been, at one point or another, everything from a butterfly to an elephant. She hates her condition. If she had a choice, she would’ve opted to be normal. As she doesn’t, she is working on a serum to be able to control her shifts, but her work doesn’t go too smoothly.
Besides, other complications arise in her life, as the story progresses. The man she is falling in love with is fully human. Could she trust him with her secret identity? Would he betray her? Would he accept her animal alter-ego? What if she turns into a rat one day? Or a giraffe?
Karadel’s love story is intertwined with a much more poignant topic: being different, living a life unlike those of the majority. More than anything else, Karadel wants to blend in, not to attract attention. She tries very hard to seem human. Unfortunately, her differences are too deep for her to pretend successfully. Sometimes, when the shift hits her, she hardly has time to hide.
“I hate it!” I burst out. “I hate being different and strange. I hate the fact that my body is completely out of my control, that these transformations will take me over whenever they want to, and I can’t guess when and I can’t stop them. I hate living in fear. I hate lying to everyone I know. I want to be normal and ordinary.”
I understand her and sympathize with her. Being different is no fun. I have Asperger Syndrome, and although my condition doesn’t threaten me with a witch hunt, it affects my entire life: from job interviews to my relationship with my children. I hate it. I want to be normal too, I try to pretend, just like Karadel, but like her, I can’t. So we both muddle through the best we can.
Not every shape-shifter feels this way though. One of Karadel’s friends feel differently: why should he hide and pretend? Why shouldn’t he rejoice in what he is; it’s not his fault after all. If any human abuses him or his shifter-friends, shouldn’t shape-shifters fight back, punish the offender? If they can’t rely on the government protection—and they can’t; the government doesn’t know about them—shouldn’t someone else represent the shape-shifters?
This theme, throbbing through the story, is even more complex. Who has the right to punish? To kill? A soldier is sanctioned to kill by his government. A policeman—by the society. What about the shape-shifters’ society? Shouldn’t they have their own appointed individuals with a ‘license to kill’?
The people who populate Shinn’s novel are ambivalent on the subject, but I couldn’t help to notice that most of those who insist that the government-sanctioned death is the only permissible kind are human. One of them said:
“If Ryan can decide Bobby... deserves to die, why couldn’t Bobby’s brother decide you should die? If vengeance is always an acceptable motive for murder, all of us will be gunned down at some point. And if we give the individual the power to make those life-and-death decisions—if the single armed vigilante can take it upon himself to rid the town of monsters—how can we make sure the individual correctly identifies the monsters. Some people would call you a monster. So does that give them a right to shoot you on sight?”
The one who said the above words is human and a friend to shifters. In theory, she is right. In practice, I don’t know if I agree. When it touches me and mine, the situation often changes its slant. I’m Jewish, and in some periods in my people’s history, intrepid vigilantes were the only form of protection we had. Could I condemn those who stand for the rights of shape-shifters in Shinn’s novel? I’m not sure. Karadel herself is on the fence too:
I let out a long sigh of surrender. I’m not happy about it but I simply don’t know what else to do. The world has gotten very murky since I started accumulating moral dilemmas.
Yes, moral dilemmas are not for the faint of heart. The author presents us with controversial questions but she doesn’t supply the answers. It’s for the readers to decide for themselves.
The characters in this book are alive and contradictory, just like in real life. Shinn is a master of characterization, and every time I read her books, I identify with her heroes. I like them. I mistrust them. I understand them. In any case, I believe in her stories. If she says that shape-shifters are real, maybe they are.
Her language is beautiful and simple. Her plot moves slower than most others in the genre, but I like the low-key, intimate quality of her writing. Even her present tense, first person POV doesn’t irritate me, even though it’s not my favorite writing approach.
On the whole, I enjoyed this lovely book a great deal. I wish all my friends would read Sharon Shinn.
Beautiful cover too.