Last year I saw notes here and there about her latest release, The Shape of Desire, but it wasn’t until the sequel (Still Life with Shapeshifter) started showing up on my Amazon ‘Recommended for Cecelia’ list that I got serious about reading the first entry in this new series. I borrowed the book from the library and read it in one night. The Shape of Desire wasn’t what I expected, but I don’t think I’ll ever be impervious to a Sharon Shinn romance.
Every month, Dante shifts shape, becoming a wild animal. During those times, he wanders far and wide, leaving Maria alone. He can't choose when he shifts, the transition is often abrupt and, as he gets older, the time he spends in human form is gradually decreasing. But Maria, who loves him without hesitation, wouldn't trade their unusual relationship for anything.
Since the beginning, she has kept his secret, knowing that their love is worth the danger. But when a string of brutal attacks occur in local parks during the times when Dante is in animal form, Maria is forced to consider whether the lies she's been telling about her life have turned into lies she's telling herself...
Maria has been in love with Dante for almost half of her life. She keeps him secret and she keeps him safe. This is because Dante is a shapeshifter, and his anonymity is synonymous with his safety. However, when a series of murders shake her area, Maria isn’t sure what to do, where the boundaries lie in her relationship (is she in danger? are others?), or how deep the secrets go.
While the presence of a shapeshifting character marks this book as a fantasy (and a paranormal fantasy at that), it reads much more like realistic contemporary fiction. As Maria herself points out several times, Dante could simply have a very mysterious job – as a CIA operative, perhaps. The same book could exist with a spy at its core rather than a shapeshifter. With that said, I think Shinn’s treatment of the shapeshifting element is a highlight – there is no glorification of it, and very little beauty to be found. Instead, the life of a shapeshifter is one of danger, of brevity, and of uncertainty.
At its heart, The Shape of Desire is a romance. It’s a story of individuals making insane choices in order to live with each other, and the inherent peril in those decisions. The romance is fleshed out with office gossip, family relationships, and the very mundane details of life. The gripping parts, the bits that keep you reading, are the threads of secrets, the theme of protecting family and protecting self, and a mature understanding of love and romance.
On the downside, there’s not a lot of ‘action’ on the surface. This is about humanity, about emotional survival, about the toll of living with secrets. The book will appeal to those with patience to unravel a character-driven story, but probably not those used to rip-roaring plots. It’s a quiet, adult book (despite what the cover would lead you to believe). I wasn’t expecting it, and it won’t be an all-time favorite, but I admired the furious-movement-beneath-still-water feel of Shinn’s writing and the unique take on a common paranormal creature.
Recommended for: those who appreciate character-driven stories with a slow build towards conflict, and anyone curious to see how a seasoned fantasy and sci-fi author will approach a well-worn paranormal trope.