March 5, 2013

Review: Still Life with Shapeshifter by Sharon Shinn

As you know, Sharon Shinn is an auto-buy author for me. Ever since the unparalleled experience that was me reading Archangel, I have been an unabashed fangirl. I have my favorites, but I read everything she writes because I love her ways with words and her way with worlds. Which was why I was so intrigued and excited to hear she was working on an urban fantasy series. She's done sci-fi, she's done high fantasy, she's done YA. It only makes sense she should find her way to one of my very favorite fantasy sub-genres and make her mark there. I read The Shape of Desire, the first book in her Shifting Circle series, right when it came out last year, and I've essentially been mulling it over ever since. And while my feelings for it were complicated and many, I knew I would be reading the companion novel either way. Because, as is always the case, the world she has created won't leave me alone. But before we go on, a word on the covers for this series. I love them. They are dark and still, frozen moments captured between shifters and their humans. And they seem to strike a particularly chilling note once you've read their stories.

Melanie Landon exists in survival mode. She just wants to get up, go to work, come home, check in with her sister Ann, and get through the day. And any day in which no one asks too many questions is a good one. Which is why she has a full-blown panic attack when she finds Brody Westerbrook on her doorstep full to bursting with questions. Formerly a local television reporter of some note, Brody recently quit his job to write a rather unusual book. And he's pretty sure Melanie can help him with the subject matter. You see, Brody wants to write a book on shapeshifters and he appears absolutely convinced Mel's sister Ann is one. Without thinking twice, Melanie does what she has done her entire life and shuts this persistent intruder out. Ever since she was ten years old and the adults in her life virtually checked out, she has known it was her job and her job alone to protect Ann. And up to this point, she's been successful. No one has been able to get behind that shield. But when Brody refuses to give up and Ann refuses to hide, Melanie's life takes on another level of complexity. Faced with the possible annihilation of the world as she knows it, she is torn between reaching out for the human contact she's always been deprived and clutching the one person she loves to her with every ounce of strength she has.

All of Shinn's worlds stick with me, but this one--this eerie version of our own--haunts me. This is not urban fantasy as you've come to expect it. It is not sassy. It is not swashbuckling. And it is not a non-stop, action-packed thrill ride. What it is, is quiet. Quiet and intelligent and disconcertingly real. So real that when it is grim, it is almost incapacitating in its grimness. So real that when the characters' emotions spill over, I feel precariously close to losing control of my own. In other words, Shinn's skill and subtlety do not make for what you might call comfortable reading here. Though they do wash over you with an almost surreal grace.
"Sit down, sit down," Ann says, still acting as hostess. "Brody, would you like some cookies? They're just store-bought, but they're pretty good."

"No, no dessert, thanks. Unless you have pie," Brody says, sinking to a seat. The rest of us arrange ourselves around the table though no one actually relaxes. I have the notion that William has gone into some kind of feral high alert, like a hare trying to oustmart a wolf. Brody, who is leaning casually against his chair back, is clearly still sorting through his memories, looking for a match. Ann is bouncing around like a child who's eaten too much candy, and I'm as tense as a violin string. If you ran a finger across my forearm, you'd wake a low G.
I appreciate that with these books Ms. Shinn chose to make her protagonists ordinary in every way but one: they are (in one way or another) intimately connected with someone who is a shapeshifter. And that small, unsettling detail reshapes the way they lead their lives in every particular. And yet, by virtue of the nature of the shapeshifters in their lives, these women spend unimaginable amounts of time alone. And my but how Shinn doesn't shy away from those interminable hours. Those days and weeks of loneliness, of wondering, of fear that are a direct result of this basic fact of their lives. There is nothing glossy about Melanie Landon or her monotonous life. Like Maria Devane before her, Melanie revolves around her shapeshifter. In this case, her much younger half sister. And like Maria, I really liked Melanie. More than that, I worried about her, about what would happen to her should she lose her purpose. I desperately wanted some small outside channel of happiness to find its way past her tall walls. Together, Brody and Ann (both as filled with humor and whimsy as Melanie is sober) make inroads in that direction. But for every step toward happiness, there is a separate but equal step toward loss. Sometimes the degree to which Melanie devoted herself to Ann felt unhealthy. Sometimes the stifling quality of her small world made me long for some sassy swashbuckling to bound in and save the day. But the thing is, that single minded devotion also felt natural. If I didn't necessarily feel as though it was how I would react, it certainly felt like a more-than-plausible reaction for Melanie. And if I step back and put myself in her shoes, in the suffocating situation in which she lives, I really don't know how differently I would operate. So while the books in this series are not easy ones to read (they are, in fact, exhausting at times), they are riveting and raw. And I find that sometimes it's good to read a book that doesn't conform to expectations, that discomfits even as it entertains. Don't you?

Buy:
 Reading Order
The Shape of Desire
Still Life with Shapeshifter

Linkage
The Bookpushers - "When I finished reading it after reaching for a few tissues all I could think is that Shinn has done it to me again."

18 comments:

  1. I expected them to be a little quite (Shinn has a quiet way of writing. Even when something big is happening it feels sort of subdued--in a good way, of course), but these books were not what I was expecting, and they are not the kind of genre I usually like. But I couldn't put them down! The hardcovers were definitely worth the money. Great review!

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    1. She does, it's true. They definitely still blindsided me a bit as well, Lizzy. Really glad you loved them. I'm looking forward to the third, painful as they are.

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  2. I read the first in this series upon your recommendation (well, and it's Sharon Shinn, and that Samaria series was like book crack!), and I too found it quiet, moving, sometimes disturbing. I don't know that I want to read this one... but I do know that I will keep coming back to Shinn's books, and trying out new worlds that she creates.

    Great review.

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    1. The Samaria series is total bibliocrack! I <3 it so.

      Disturbing is totally a key word with this series. I mean, wow. I found this one less disturbing relationship-wise, but just as disturbing as far as THE LIVES THEY LEAD.

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  3. I haven't read this one yet - I'm waiting for the paperback release after my rather conflicted feelings about the first book in this series.

    I loved Shinn's take on UF - like you, I thought it was quiet yet compelling storytelling, and so different from other UFs out there. However, I really struggled with the romance as I thought it verged on the emotionally abusive. I'm guessing that this one is just as complicated based on your review.

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    1. My feelings on the first one remain conflicted, too, Li. Mostly with regards to their relationship for the reasons you mention. But something made me go ahead and read this one now. Glad I did, mainly because I think she's doing something so interesting within a genre I thought I knew. I would love to talk to her about this series and find out some of the why behind her authorial decisions.

      The romance here is far less problematic. They are both human and it's very healthy as far as him trying to draw her out of her solitude. FWIW, I liked that aspect very much.

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  4. Well, you've talked me into this series! I love good adult UF, but so many of them are just surface action stories with very little else going on. This one sounds like it has much more depth to it, and if it's an author on auto-buy for you, I must check her out. Thank you for the recommendation!

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

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    1. Awesome, Wendy! Yeah, this series is much more internalized than another other UF I've read.

      If you've never tried Shinn before, I wholeheartedly recommend her. She is quite simply always a win for me. My very favorites are ARCHANGEL and MYSTIC & RIDER.

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  5. I love Sharon Shinn's books, but I admit I was swayed away from the first book of this series because of low reviews. I was so disappointed (having loved her other books, especially Troubled Waters and the Twelve Houses series). So I put this series out of my mind. But here you are reviewing a second book. Maybe I'll give it a shot. (Though I wish she would finish the sequel to Troubled Waters!!)

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    1. I'm glad I read the first book before reading any reviews. But I can totally see why they're polarizing for some readers. Aspects of the first relationship troubled me, but that was part of the point, I think. And I couldn't put it down. This one has a much healthier romantic relationship, IMO, but still shows what it's like for humans and shifters to love each other (familial love and romantic love) and how problematic and painful it can be.

      It looks like the sequel to Troubled Waters will be out this fall, so yay for that!

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  6. Sharon Shinn is one of my favorite authors also. I must have read the original Samaria Trilogy at least half a dozen times or more over the years, and her hauntingly quiet prose keeps pulling me back. I haven't started this series yet (or Troubled Waters, either) but hearing your thoughts makes me anxious to start downloading new Shinn novels to my Nook!

    Great review!

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    1. *highfive*

      They are such wonderful books. I always return to Rachel and Gabriel and Obadiah and Maga and Caleb and Alleya and . . . I love them all.

      I love my Nook. Happy reading!

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  7. I skimmed your review so that I can approach this series with as fresh a view as possible (besides for that one view that is that Shinn is a supremely talented writer and every blogger/reviewer I respect respects her). You've definitely got me hooked onto her books!

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    1. Smart, Steph. :)

      So glad she's worked out for you. Have you read Mystic & Rider yet? I'm interested to hear what you think of that fun adventure quest.

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  8. Anonymous9:15 AM

    Hi, Angie: Your blog comes up so often when I do vanity searches so I've always wanted to say hi. I thought this was a particularly interesting review of a series that has gotten SUCH a mixed response! Despite the fact that I myself hate reading books with not-so-happy endings, STILL LIFE is probably my favorite of the things I've written. So thanks for posting! --Sharon Shinn (and you can always email me through my Web site if you want to discuss some authorial decisions!)

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    1. Hi Sharon! Lol, that makes sense as I tend to go on and on about your books to anyone who will listen. I'm so glad you commented! And I'm not surprised STILL LIFE is your favorite. So much is going ON between the lines in this book. And it made me want to go back and reread SHAPE OF DESIRE, which is always a good sign in a sequel/companion novel. I feel the same way re: HEAs. And there was once scene near the end that was almost impossible for me to read. Too close to home. But I loved Melanie and Brody. I'm so glad he was given a second chance after his role in SoD. Any hints about what (and who) we'll see in the third book? You know what, I'm just gonna email you right now and ask all my questions!

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    2. Anonymous8:25 AM

      That would be great! No message from you has shown up yet, though, if you were thinking you'd sent one... Sharon

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    3. Real life descended. Email has been sent!

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