I received a free ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
When I sat down to begin Shifter, the final novel in Alma Alexander’s Were Chronicles trilogy, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d enjoyed Random and Wolf, the first two books, and expected I would like Shifter very much as well. I expected a funny, devil-may-care protagonist who would make me chuckle, wrap up the trilogy in a neat little bow, and leave me to put the book aside at the end and continue merrily on my way.
Here’s what I did NOT expect: to be presented with a bold, caring, noble protagonist who would win my heart, move me to tears, and leave me, more than a week after finishing Shifter, still reeling and struggling to regain my emotional equilibrium.
Shifter is by far the best novel in the Were Chronicles, though I’ll admit I didn’t come to this conclusion right away. Each book in the trilogy is narrated by a different character and starts with an extensive recap of the events of the previous book(s) from the current narrator’s point of view. This can get repetitive, and even though Shifter is told from the perspective of Saladin “Chalky” van Schalkwyk, my favorite character in the series, I was initially frustrated that I seemed to be re-reading an old story rather than getting a new one. There are new details on Chalky’s childhood – what it was like growing up with his paranoid and mentally unfit mother, how he came to Turn for the first time, what his life was like as a young hacker – but the key points of the plot aren’t “new” until approximately 75% into the book.
Once Shifter catches up to where Wolf ended, though, things get good. Really good. There’s the re-emergence of the hateful Barbican Bain, with whom Chalky interacts personally. There’s a slip-up that has dire consequences for Were-kind in general and Chalky and the Marshes in particular. There’s escalated anti-Were violence and paranoia. And, as Chalky points out, “at the center of it all, there was that primal terror – not of what the Were-kind actually were, but of what they could be.”
Even if the action hadn’t picked up the way it did, Chalky as a narrator still would have been enough to make Shifter my favorite book in the Were Chronicles. I liked Chalky in Random and Wolf, finding his humor and craftiness appealing, but it wasn’t until Shifter that I had the opportunity to peer into his inner workings and realize that there’s so much more to Chalky than simply being Mal’s clever techy friend. Beneath his jaunty demeanor is a profound loneliness and a desire to be part of a family. He’s one of a kind, for better or worse, always on the fringes of society:
“I did think for a moment that it might be better for everyone if I never Turned back into Saladin van Schalkwyk, the human misfit who was so very wary and lonely and alone in that life. Perhaps I could just stay as this bird, from now on, and I might never have to think about any of that other stuff again. Nobody would ever hit me, or look at me as though I was the cause of everything bad that had happened to them. They wouldn’t resent me or think of me as a burden or a nuisance, or even a reminder of things that might have been but never came to pass. I would be free.”
Being the only one of his kind comes with a certain accountability. As the Spiderman movies proclaim, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and Chalky is the most powerful Were alive. He is pivotal to the events of all three books in the Were Chronicles, and though other characters play important roles in the adventure, the series couldn’t possibly take place without Chalky’s skills as a hacker and his ability to shift into whatever form is needed. By virtue of his unique gifts, he becomes the guardian angel that watches over the Marsh family and everyone else who crosses his path, taking care of them because he’s the only one who can do so.
I was intellectually interested in the plights and philosophical questions in Random and Wolf, but it wasn’t until I viewed the story through Chalky’s lonely, yearning, white-knight lens that I was impacted on an emotional level. In the scene where Celia is reunited with her siblings after years of absence, for example, I actually got choked up. I’d read this scene once before in Wolf, and it hadn’t really affected me. When shown through Chalky’s eyes, though, it brought me to tears.
One thing I’ve always found captivating about the Were Chronicles is the way Alexander portrays the logistics and consequences of Turning. This is especially compelling in Shifter, as Chalky isn’t encumbered by the same “rules” as the rest of Were-kind. His abilities are above and beyond those of other Were, but so are the repercussions of using these abilities. Here are a couple of snippets:
“My innards felt churned up, as though all my major organs were still deciding where they properly went after they’d been forced to play do-si-do in various body forms with such intensity over a shatteringly short period of time.”
“There was a trade-off when it came to Were changes. Things had to be kept in balance … Much smaller creatures – like for instance a mouse, the shape I was in now – paid for the loss of mass by an increase in metabolism – we were hyper-charged mice, if you like. Our heart rates were much higher than an ordinary mouse. The wear and tear on our insides was enormous; we literally had to give up physical substance to drop into something that could weigh one hundredth or less of our human form, and that had to go somewhere. We paid for it with an acceleration of energy and metabolism. Our small forms lived faster. If we stayed in a small form for too long we could – probably literally – explode our hearts.”
Much as I loved Shifter, there were some parts that didn’t work for me. The ending is rushed, with several events not fleshed out to my satisfaction. Likewise, an important relationship is established without having sufficient time to develop; the reader is required to simply take the author’s word for it that said relationship makes sense. There’s a lot of telling rather than showing in general, and you’re asked to take it on faith that the friendship between Chalky and Mal is deeply rooted and that the two have had many meaningful bonding moments beyond what’s directly witnessed in the books.
None of these things matter, though, in light of how much of an emotional punch Shifter packs, especially in the last few chapters. Alexander’s writing is gorgeous and insightful, and she uses it to full advantage. I’m always sad when I finish a great story, but as I wrote to Alma Alexander in a Facebook message while in the throes of book withdrawal, “I just finished Shifter and now I have to cancel my plans for the day to eat chocolate and cry!” The best books leave a hole in you when they’re over, and Shifter certainly left a gaping void in me.
The experience is worth it, though. And look at it this way – once you’re finished you can always go back and re-read the book’s perfect last line over and over again to bring yourself comfort, as I’ve been doing. So what are you waiting for? Go get some chocolate and start reading this book!