Still Life with Shape-Shifter - Sharon Shinn This is a sad, sad book, beautiful and absorbing but melancholy, emotionally intense, almost heart-rending. I cried in the end.
I hesitate to pigeonhole this tale to a genre – it transcends genres. As a love story, it might be categorized as romance, but it’s so much more. Published by Shinn’s lifelong publisher Ace Books, a traditional fantasy publisher, it’s a fantasy on the surface. After all, it deals with shape-shifters, but when I look deeper, inside the allegory of shape-shifters, this novel tells an utterly human story of being different.
Melanie’s beloved half-sister Ann is a shape-shifter. To protect Ann from the world’s unfriendly scrutiny, Melanie has been keeping Ann’s secret for all 20 years of Ann’s life. Now, a charming reporter Brody shows on Melanie’s doorstep. He is going to write a book about shape-shifters and he suspects Ann is one. What is Melanie to do? Her dilemma deepens, when Ann is afflicted by a mysterious sickness. Could Melanie take the risk to expose Ann’s true nature by consulting a doctor? Or should she keep the secret and risk Ann dying? Could Melanie trust Brody to help them? Could she trust her own heart, which is falling in love with Brody? Twisted with uncertainties and assaulted by guilt, Melanie tries to maintain as regular a facade as she can, but life puts her through the grinder of impossible choices.
By telling Melanie’s story, Shinn explores the theme of being different from various angles. How hard it’s to be different. How hard it is to love someone who is different. What sacrifices we are wiling to endure, what difficult decisions we are willing to make for those we love. What does it mean to accept your difference and live with it without losing your dignity? Or your humanity? (An apt question for shape-shifters)
The novel also touches on a connected theme: the devastation of secrets. Secrets take over people’s lives; sometimes they destroy families, but no matter how hard one tries, secrets have the tendency to come out eventually. Secrets are poisonous, but what if there is no choice?
The characters of the novel are alive, real, living among us and grappling with the same problems we do. Although not always sympathetic, they are inevitably true to their backgrounds and situations in life.
The plot is seemingly slow; it’s definitely not an adventure flick, despite its shape-shifters mystique. It’s a novel of contemplation and inner growth, where most of the action takes place inside the characters’ minds and hearts. And inside the reader’s mind and heart as well. I read it and I couldn’t stop thinking, putting myself in the heroes’ shoes. What would I do if I had to struggle with such adversity? Would I be good enough? Could I cope?
My reflections, as I read the book, also took a form of musing on a tangent. Some people, especially teenagers, often want to be different, to stand out. Or they think they do. They pretend in any case by wearing unconventional clothes, or talking nonsense, or joining some outrageous clubs, or dyeing their hair pink, or what not. But all those attempts to impress their peers are just posing, for show. These poor misguided youngsters don’t have a clue how hard it is to be different.
Many of those who really are different – because of their ethnicity or religion, illness or talent – have been trying the opposite throughout human history and fiction: to camouflage themselves as normal, to blend in. Their attitude is best described by this snippet of conversation from the novel. One of the characters in the book asks her lover, a werewolf:
“If you could control it [the change] completely, would you ever choose to be a wolf again?”
“No,” he said.
“You’d be ordinary? Instead of extraordinary, which is what you are?”
“I think anyone who isn’t ordinary wishes he was,” he said quietly. “No matter what makes him different, he wants to be the same as everyone else.”

Nobody wants to be a freak, when it’s for real. Unfortunately, some of us don’t have a choice. The only choice we do have is how we handle our abnormality: with gentle elegance or with self-pitying spite. The former – I bow to them with deep admiration for their courage. The latter – they are those who pick up a gun and shoot innocents.
A sad association for a simple fantasy novel, isn’t it?