The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

The Shape of Desire (A Shifting Circle Novel)

One of the common misconceptions about fantasy is that it usually has big epic events: massive battles with multiple clashing armies; magic that sizzles through the air and bends the fabric of reality; or solemn councils that decide the fate of nations.  But fantasy can be found in quieter, smaller ways too.  Sharon Shinn’s subtle novel, The Shape of Desire, seduces readers rather than beating them over the head.

(Description nicked from B&

“For fifteen years Maria Devane has been desperately, passionately in love with Dante Romano. But despite loving him with all of her heart and soul, Maria knows that Dante can never give all of himself back—at least not all the time.

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…”

The neat thing about this novel is how it pulls you into the same mindset as Maria.  She has spent fifteen years loving a man who expects her to believe that he’s a shapeshifter, one who won’t or can’t provide any proof of what he claims.  Maria has had twinges of doubt, but events in this story cause those doubts to surge to the surface.  Readers are asked to give that same level of suspension of disbelief, and it’s an interesting tactic to have both the reader and the narrator experiencing the same emotions.  It’s not that you’re being asked to empathize with her (although you do); rather, you’re being asked to examine the situation and make your own judgment.  The author is skilled enough to bring you to the same state of confusion as the main character without being overt about it.

This goes hand in hand with the novel’s subtlety.  There’s really only one scene in which Maria is involved in anything dramatic or overly active.  The book revolves around her feelings, and on how she lives her life in the midst of the uncertainly of her relationship.  Even the story’s final climactic events are seen from afar.  This is, however, the beauty of this book—you’re pulled very deeply into one person’s life and are allowed to see what it would be like to honestly, truly wonder if there is magic in the world.

I was initially a bit doubtful about the portrayal of the depth of Maria’s longing for Dante when he wasn’t around.  About a quarter of the way through the book, as it became clear that Dante’s human days were slowly decreasing and issues within their relationship were being raised, I was forced to remember the time when I was in a long distance relationship with my husband Scott.  There’s a particular kind of stress, a particular kind of sadness, that’s present in such situations.  Once I made that comparison, I realized that Shinn had gotten the feeling exactly right.

Beyond just being a magical love story, this novel asks readers to ponder the questions of what it means to be human, and what it means to be a monster.  That single dramatic moment that I mentioned earlier has a lot to do with this puzzle, because someone who becomes an animal doesn’t necessarily become animalistic (in the most savage sense of the word).  The attacks in the local parks accentuate the issue, because the brutality could be committed by someone who is a beast on the outside, or by someone whose beastliness is purely internal.

Although not as action-packed as many fantasy novels in today’s market, The Shape of Desire is a deeply satisfying read.  It is filled with the wonder and marvel of magic and the hope that maybe, if we look hard enough, we’ll find such mysteries in our everyday world.

Also by this author: Jenna Starborn, Still Life with Shape-Shifter

This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on April 19, 2012.

Series: Shifting Circle
ISBN: 9781937007171
Publisher: Ace
Page Count: 336
Publication Date: April 3, 2012
Acquired: Provided by the publisher
Author Website
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