Sharon Shinn, The Shape-Changer’s Wife (Ace Books, 1995)
I have waited a long time to read The Shape-Changer’s Wife by Sharon Shinn. For years, it has existed at the periphery of my consciousness. My eyes have always been drawn to its spine whenever I wandered the fantasy section of the bookstore. It has simply always been a book I knew I wanted to read, yet never managed to get to. I maintain that some books come to us in their own times, when we are ready most to enjoy or find enlightenment in their pages. Finally, today, was The Shape-Changer’s Wife‘s time for me.
I settled down and read this book in one day: not in one sitting, but in four. Each time I put it down to do chores or run errands, I eagerly returned to it as to the most beloved of fairy tales. And, like the best fairy tales, this slender volume had more to share than just an entertaining host of the typical fairy tale motifs: this book also is laced with a lesson about the transformative power of love. Furthermore, this transformative power is neither good, nor evil, but often perceived as both by those who suffer its transports.
The book begins simply enough, with a student, Aubrey, coming to a new teacher named Glyrenden. The student of shape-shifting is confident and gay, while all around him the world is rife with foreboding rumors of his new master: men avoid his company, beasts flee before him, and his home is unwelcoming, peopled by the strangest of denizens. In the heart of that home, Aubrey finds many mysteries, the greatest of which is the shape-changer’s wife. The unraveling of these mysteries will either prove his demise or all’s salvation.
Sharon Shinn is one of the new masters of contemporary fairy tales, that sub-genre which is championed by the likes of Peter S. Beagle and Patricia A. McKillip. Her language is elegant, yet poetic and effective, beguiling you into complete absorption by her story. It is to her credit that, in such a work as this, we are likely to see pieces of ourselves as well as the tale the storyteller wishes to convey.
If you should come upon this novel in the bookstore (and I certainly recommend that you arrange such a chance meeting), take it in your hands. If the book whispers to you of its marvels, and you understand that its time has come for you, yield to it. Carry it to the check-out lane, clasped in your arms like a cherished secret. Then settle down wherever your fancy takes you: on a porch of a rainy afternoon, at a small café table, in your warm and comfortable bed. Open the cover, and read. You may meet parts of yourself and, if you don’t, you’ve still met a remarkably fine tale.
This review was originally published at Green Man Review on July 18th, 2004. It was also awarded the Excellence in Writing Award from the editorial staff of that publication.