Shapechanger's Song by Jennifer Roberson

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

At a used book sale this April, I picked up Shapechanger’s Song and The Last Unicorn (which I plan to read next). After all of the Tolkien books I'd read recently, my brain needed a rest from that sort of hyper-crafted world, something more casual and commercial. Shapechanger’s Song fit the bill perfectly.

Shapechanger's Song by Jennifer Roberson Paperback Book | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews


*Warning! Spoilers for Book 1*
Twenty-five years ago, the ruler of Homana began a genocide against his Cheysuli countrymen because of a personal conflict with their leader. Alix and Carillion’s generation has grown up in a culture that taught them to hate these “demons.” But when they’re captured by one of these shapechangers, their perspective of the world—and themselves— is turned upside down. As international tensions grow and outside forces threaten Homana, the need increases for Homanans and Cheysuli to unite and protect their country, but Shaine still sits on the throne, and there’s no way he’ll stop his hateful crusade against the Cheysuli, even if his denial grinds his homeland into the dust.

Shapechanger’s Song by Jennifer Roberson is a 2001 omnibus that includes the first two books of the Chronicles of the Cheysuli, Shapechangers (1984) and The Song of Homana (1985), plus a never before published short story called Kinspirit and an introduction from the author.

All eight books in this multi-generational epic (first published 1984-1992) have different protagonists. Book one, Shapechangers,  is written in third person and focuses on Alix’s story. Book two, The Song of Homana, is written in first person from Carillion’s perspective. Kinspirit, the short story included in this omnibus edition, gives greater detail on Rowan’s involvement near the end of Shapechangers. It is written in third person.

Review of Shapechanger's Song

The Introduction

The introduction to this omnibus was my favorite part. As a writer, it was really interesting to read Jennifer Roberson’s story of early writing problems, publication history, and her growth as a writer. This  part especially stood out to me:

“In these past two-plus decades, I have honed my craft, refined my style, experimented with new characters, new worlds, new styles, pushed the envelope. Shapechangers is by no means my best work, as later and more ambitious novels attest, but it was the best I could do at the time, and without doubt is the readers’ favorite of all the Cheysuli novels. (Mine actually is The Song of Homana, also contained in this edition, because I feel it exhibits a significant improvement in my storytelling.) From time to time, I flirt with the idea of rewriting Shapechangers, of revising the original longer, multi-viewpoint version, presenting it as an author’s preferred edition. But Shapechangers is a part of my past. It helped shape the writer I am today, but it didn’t—and doesn’t—define me.”

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, this has important implications:

  • Writers: your work will never be perfect. Finish it and get onto the next thing. With time and practice, your abilities will grow. Don’t let the need to be perfect prevent you from getting anything finished.

  • Readers: Don’t write off a particular author as incompetent because you read one of their books that wasn’t great or wasn’t your particular cup of tea. If they’ve released a ton of books since that one came out and you find more recent books that seem like they might be interesting, give them a shot.  You may have found your new favorite author. Even things like an author’s stance on political and social issues may change over time.

Issues with Shapechangers

From the introduction, I wasn’t totally clear on whether Shapechangers was the fourth novel that Jennifer Roberson wrote or if she wrote three other books afterward and still hadn’t found a publisher for them when Shapechangers was finally published. She does mention getting the book analyzed by a literary agency and receiving feedback, which she used to revise it.

In any case, Shapechangers has a lot of “first novel” problems: on-the-nose dialog, lack of subtext, over-repetition of expository details, info-dumping in dialog, cliches and tropes galore, preachiness, telliness, inadequate foreshadowing, poorly developed characters, erratic and inconsistent characters…you get the idea.

A soap-opera-esque romance plot takes precedence over the political plot in the first half of the book, and once that question is answered, the story flips and the romance takes a back seat to the political issues. I preferred the political plot, but readers who were more interested in the romantic plot may find that the switch gives them whiplash. But never fear—there’s plenty of drama (romantic and political) in book two!

There are also several moments in the story where characters leave their enemies alive when they have no reasonable cause not to kill them. I could only conclude that the plots of future books must need them. This wouldn’t be too hard to fix—characters just need stronger, more believable reasons.

Overall, this book was casually diverting, but I didn’t feel immersed in the story. If not for the author mentioning in the Introduction that she thought The Song of Homana was way better, and if I didn’t already have access to the second book in the same volume, I probably would have stopped reading the series after book one. If you can’t get through book one, just skip it and go on to book two. There may be a few world-building things that you can’t quite nail down, but for the most part, you should be able to figure out what’s going on from context and/or details repeated in book two.

Because I had already gotten to know Jennifer Roberson a little bit through the introduction, this book felt like the work of a peer. Even though it has all kinds of issues, I enjoyed it because I knew it was just the beginning of her work as an author.

Improvement in The Song of Homana & Kinspirit

When I got into this book, I found myself cheering for the author. Then I got immersed in the story and stayed immersed for most of the book. It was much better than Shapechangers. Everything on my list of issues with book one is eliminated, toned down, or used in a more deliberate manner that works well with the story.

There is one plot-twist that comes out of nowhere because the narrator withholds information from the readers, but it’s early enough in the story that I didn’t feel totally jipped about the ending or anything. Aside from that, the plot twists were surprising, yet made sense when I thought about them because there had been adequate foreshadowing and some good red-herrings.

Kinspirit, the short story included in this omnibus, gives greater detail on Rowan’s involvement near the end of Shapechangers. I would guess that its inclusion was a marketing strategy by the publisher to get Roberson’s hardcore fans to buy another edition of the books. Since the early drafts of Shapechangers had multiple perspectives, the core of the story was probably drawn from original scenes that were cut out later, but the story and writing style are more refined than Shapechangers, so I think it was probably written/rewritten closer to the 2001 publication date of this edition. There is an arc in Kinspirit, but I think it’s more like a few deleted scenes than a standalone story. It’s a nice bonus.

Overall Writing Style

The first thing I noticed about these books was the style. The characters often speak in a way that is stiff and archaic. It was conspicuous when I first started reading, but once I had read a while it blended in as a feature of the world. Jennifer Roberson has a large vocabulary and her use of archaic language helps make her long words blend more naturally into the story world.

There are, however, a couple of word choices that always pull me out of the story. One is her use of “well come” when we might use “welcome.” Part of the issue is that those two words separately don’t make sense in the sentence structure, like “You are well come to my camp.” Another one was when characters would say “force” instead of “rape,” but this could have been a censorship issue with the publisher. It just came across too cutesy and white-washed for me to take it seriously, even when characters were clearly scandalized by the thought of it.

Overarching Themes

Judging by the first two books, the series explores themes of extreme racism and the after-effects genocide. To some degree, it also deals with the most extreme forms of sexism against women but lacks the nuance of modern books that deal with the same themes.

Because the books focus so much on prejudice, genetics, noble houses needing heirs, kings needing political alliances, etc. women are often reduced to bargaining chips and wombs. The phrase “I carry his child” or something of the sort comes out of pretty much all the young women’s mouths at some point. Thus far, the female characters have been largely disempowered, and they tend to whine about their situations rather than doing anything to change them—not exactly the modern idea of a strong female character.

The way the books treat the subjects of racism, religion, and fate also bring about a problematic tangle of ethics that I have no time or desire to explore here. These ideas are probably developed further in later books, but I’ll have to read them to find out.

Bottom Line

Shapechangers has a ton of story craft weaknesses which are vastly improved in The Song of Homana. The introduction allowed me to enjoy the reading experience anyway. I got some much-needed rest from Tolkien, some dramatic entertainment, and even a shiny new vocabulary word list.

I probably won’t collect the books and read them over and over again, but I might check them out from the library when my brain gets burned-out on classics and dense fantasy books. I look forward to seeing how Jennifer Roberson’s style and mastery of the craft grew as her writing career progressed.

I give this reading experience 4/7 twisty mustaches. Check back next week for the next installment in An Eclectic Writing Class.

Have you read Shapechangers? The Song of Homana? This omnibus edition? What did you think of them? Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

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