Still Life with Shape-Shifter

Sharon Shinn
November 2012, Urban Fantasy
Ace, $25.95, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0425256812

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Subtle

Of all the books that I have read by Sharon Shinn there are only two that I don’t recommend, and one of the two was the first book in this series. So I was anxious to see if that was a fluke or if it was her shape-shifter world. Even with my ambiguity over the ending in Still Life with Shape-Shifter, I still enjoyed Ms. Shinn’s writing and world building.

Although this book is the second book in the series, it does well as a stand-alone. However, if you did read the first book, then you will remember the appearance of a white husky. Melanie Landon’s half-sister, Ann, is the husky, when she is in animal form. And even though they are only half-sisters - Melanie was ten when she was born - by fifteen Melanie had assumed the role of parent. She loves Ann more than anyone else in the world and there is nothing that she wouldn’t do to keep her safe. However, so much of that is out of her control because Ann pretty much comes and goes as she pleases. Now, it has been over two months since Ann has been home, so when a man knocks on Melanie's door asking if she is the sister of Ann Landon, she assumes the worst and falls apart, crying unrestrainedly in Brody Westerbrook’s arms. After she calms down she invites him into her home, not realizing that Brody is there because he wants to write a book about shape-shifters and he believes Ann is one.

Brody, a former reporter for Channel Five, reported on the unsolved murders attributed to some type of mystery animal. He was actually in the helicopter and saw the suspect change. Even though his station had documentation of the shape-shifting no one believed it, and suspected the news team of doctoring the film. Since that time his quest has been to discover the truth and write about these hidden beings.

Melanie is appalled at the perceived danger and throws Brody out. However when Ann does arrive home and hears about the possible threat she thinks the whole thing is hilarious and wants to discover what Brody knows. Through Ann’s maneuvering Melanie and Brody are throw together, and discover a mutual attraction. But Brody’s presence is not the only threat to Melanie’s status quo - Ann has fallen in love with another shape-shifter.

There is also a secondary story arc of another shape-shifter story. The summer before her senior year in high school, Janet discovers an injured wolf on her property. She is amazed when the wolf seems to understand her, and even lets her doctor the wound on his right back leg. After a week of providing food and water, she is surprised when a young boy, Cooper, shows up instead of the wolf, but she easily believes his story. Cooper’s mother had a youthful love affair with a stranger and became pregnant. The father was beyond livid that she got pregnant and attempted to coerce her into having an abortion, telling her that he had a genetic medical condition. She refuses, and does her best even once she discovers that Cooper is a shape-shifter. It is only after she re-marries, and has a second son that she kicks Cooper out, leaving him to fend for himself at only thirteen. Now sixteen, Cooper has been on his own for three years, but after meeting Janet, he has found a home and a family.

The story is told from the viewpoint of the humans, and has a shared underlying series commonality of the hardship and joy of loving a shape-shifter. This also goes for Ann and Janet, and no sacrifice is too great. Even though these two women build their life completely around another, the relationship doesn’t appear to be one sided – one of my major complaints about the first book. Still, I haven’t quite reconciled myself to the premise that one person sacrifices more in a relationship. Oh, I know that in many cases it is true, but it reminds me of the old messages that I received as young girl – that it is a woman’s role to compromise or make a relationship work. And loving a shape-shifter seems to entail a lot of worry, fear and compromise. Still, you could say the same about a woman who loves a soldier.

Ms. Shinn shines at making mundane tasks like going to dinner or visiting friends interesting. She has a way of making the characters come alive and her dialog is so genuine and authentic. However, I did find it difficult to get into the story, mainly because the two story arcs appear unconnected for a long while. Just when I was getting pulled into Ann and Melanie’s lives, the point of view would change to Janet and her life with Cooper. The relationship between the two story arcs is not explained until late in the story.

I debated about the grade, going back and forth between B- and C+. The disjointedness between the two story arcs frustrated me, causing me to jump to the bittersweet end, which resulted in me putting off reading the rest of the story for almost a month. However once I became reconciled to the ending, I started the book again and read it straight through.

The book entertained me, and provided the impetus for me to re-examine my attitudes about loving, and it is not often that a book does that. So even with the issues that I had with the book, I am still able to recommend it.

-- Leigh Davis

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