Classic Review: Shapechangers by Jennifer Roberson

1046558Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

Format:  paperback, First Edition, 1984

Pages:  221

Reading Time:  about 3 hours


It’s hard to recall when I first got my hands on Shapechangers. This book was released when I was still in high school, and back then I didn’t have a lot of money for new books…most of the books I acquired were in small used book stores that eBay, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have effectively squashed out of existence. I didn’t find them in the local library. I also didn’t pick up books during my subsequent military service, as I had to travel light and again I wasn’t earning a whole lot money then. Even after I left the military, I was only making minimum wage, so it was most likely the early 90’s when I finally picked up this first book. I got hooked and ended up hunting down the entire series.

Roberson doesn’t get a lot of credit for her imaginative series, despite being released about the same time as David Eddings was writing his Belgariad books and Raymond Feist was exploring his Riftwar Saga. Some of that is due to the content itself. The book does not actually contain, but gets right up to the edge of, rape and incest. As the books were targeted at younger readers, since it is a coming of age story, most such readers overlooked it, but it would have turned others away. This re-read at provides an excellent plot summary, discusses how the reviewer, Tansy Roberts, felt about the books when she was younger, and how she views it now as an older reader. I think my opinions for the most part align with Tansy’s fairly well, but my re-read took me in a slightly different direction. Continue reading to find out my thoughts, and as always, ‘ware the spoilers!

Long before there was Robin Hobb’s “Wit”, there was Roberson’s lir, animals bonded to the Cheysuli, which Hobb has generously liberated for use in her Assassin Apprentice series, including the pain and emptiness suffered when the bond between man and animal is severed. At the time Shapechangers was written, Roberson’s attachment of man to animal, and the ability of that man to assume his lir’s animal form, was fairly unique. Roberson, a fantasy reader who once said that she wrote The Chronicles of the Cheysuli because she got tired of waiting for writers to release new books, describes her vision in what is effectively an author’s note:

“The Chronicles of the Cheysuli is a dynastic fantasy, the story of a proud, honorable race brought down by the avarice, evil, and sorcery of others – and its own special brand of magic. It’s the story of an ancient race blessed by the old gods of their homeland, and cursed by sorcerers who desire dominion over all men. It’s a dynasty of good and evil; love and hatred, pride and strength. Most of all it deals with the destiny in every man and his struggle to shape it follow it, deny it.”

Shapechangers, and Roberson’s plotting and writing style, are all a grand study in contrasts. Roberson’s prose is easy to navigate, at times very elegant and other times stilted and repetitive. Dialog between characters drives the story, rather than elaborate descriptions of the setting or copious amounts of action. It is essentially a love story with fantasy elements, battles, and social commentary. The main character, Alix, flits between one love interest and another, denies and then accepts her heritage, follows cultures and customs and then follows her own instincts.

Roberson also proves masterful at character change. She has four main characters: Alix; Prince Carillon, heir to the throne; Duncan, the clan chief, and Duncan’s and Alix’s half-brother, Finn. Each of these characters begin with specific opinions and prejudices, but by the end of the book their journey has changed each character to be something more, something greater, in a believable way. That is no small feat for a book of 221 pages.

In fact, this compact book, which is a quick and easy read, packs more between its pages than books 4 times its size. Roberson tackles racism and prejudice, rape and incest, predestination/prophesy and free will, and a woman’s role in a male-dominated society. Roberson doesn’t include these things in her story because she advocates them, she writes about them because they are very real issues in the cultures she has created. For instance, the Cheysuli have a very strong Native American influence. The land of Homana, where the story takes place, originally belonged to the Cheysuli, but they were forced to give it up to human settlers and then serve those humans in order to avoid persecution. The displacement of native peoples is something we know well but choose to ignore, while Roberson has made it a central part of the story.

Likewise, after the Cheysuli are hunted and persecuted, they capture human women and subjugate them, which includes rape for the purpose of childbearing. The closest Roberson comes to realizing this in the story is when Finn considers doing so to Alix after he has initially captured her; in other parts of the story we learn of the practice through character dialog. If a people are being wiped off the face of the earth and their numbers have dwindled towards extinction, and the survival of their race and their customs depends on maintaining their population, they just might be desperate enough to force the women of the very race that persecutes them to bear their children. By writing about it, Roberson does not give approval to the practice – this is not Terry Goodkind constantly preaching a brand of philosophy – rather, Roberson merely points out what a desperate people might do to survive, without going into Steven Erikson-level detail. I very much admire Roberson for having the courage to explore such dark facets of culture and society in her work. For those who do choose to read further in the series, you will find these are not all happy ending type stories…several of the books contain very tragic scenes.

Shapechangers does have a few problems. Due to its (mostly) fast pace and copious amounts of dialog, we don’t always get detailed descriptions of people and places and must fill in the details using our own imagination. And regarding that fast pace, there are parts of the story where Alix is introduced to the Cheysuli ways and the story tends to drag a bit as Alix tries to fit in while at the same time attempts to cling to her own beliefs. Alix’s flip-flopping and flightiness at times had me rolling my eyes at the soap opera unfolding before me. Some of the dialog is so repetitive it becomes grating – I was ready to claw my eyes out when the phrase “What do you say?” is used for the seemingly hundredth time. Also, Roberson occasionally contradicts the system she has established. When Finn attempts to force Alix, Finn’s lir intervenes, saying “she is not for you.” Thus one of the lir, who have knowledge of the prophecy that plays such an important part of the story, attempts to influence events based on its knowledge of the prophesy. Yet later another of the lir explains to Alix that “the lir cannot precipitate it” when referring to the prophecy and how they cannot tell her what will happen. These two events seemingly contradict each other.

In my youth I found this story fascinating, and the re-read as an adult has not changed that whatsoever – it has actually given me greater appreciation of the depths of Roberson’s talent, despite any clumsiness in being Roberson’s debut novel. I had forgotten much of the story, almost to the point where I was reading it once more for the first time, making it more enjoyable than if I had recalled every detail of the plot. There are eight books total in the series, which is out of print but was re-released as a 4 book omnibus series, with two of the original books per omnibus. I have seen a variety of different covers, but only the art of the original series, beautifully done by Julek Heller, captures characters the way I imagine them. I do vaguely remember subsequent books containing more love stories, tragedies, cool lir and shapeshifting, and how truly evil the Ihlini sorcerers really were. I’m looking forward to re-reading the rest of the series and posting my thoughts here. I would recommend this story to those looking for a quick, sword and sorcery-type read that contains more depth than appears on the surface.