by Vanessa Di Gregorio
I have always loved mythology, legend, and folklore. They are always so full of different cultures and colourful characters; of epic adventures and hard-won victories; of loss and heartache and the capricious whim of gods and higher beings; of magic and mystery and might. Perhaps that is why I was so enchanted by Holly Bennett’s Shapeshifter, which tells the tale of a little known character in Irish folklore.
When I first cracked open its pages, I was completely unaware that this was based off of any legend. But as soon as I read the introduction to the book and found out that Bennett had added the actual folktale at the back, I was excited and intrigued. And once I started, I could not put this book down. I read it voraciously, and it only took me a single day to finish. And that cover! Absolutely gorgeous! It’s the reason why I first picked up the book; how can you not find that absolutely enchanting?
So just what is this book about? Here’s a description taken from Orca Book Publishers:
A woman trapped in the body of a deer. A dark sorcerer in relentless pursuit. A mysterious child, found alone on the slopes of a great mountain.
This is the turbulent and heartbreaking story of Sive, a girl of the Otherworld who must flee her world of plenty to live as a hunted beast. Surviving hardship, danger and crushing loneliness, she finally finds refuge—and unexpected joy—with a mortal champion, Finn Mac Cumhail, the great hero of Irish legend. But Sive’s ordeal is far from over. She has a gift the Dark Man craves, and the smallest misstep will give him his chance to snatch her away from all she holds dear.
Set in the wild, magical landscape of Iron Age Ireland, Shapeshifter is a tale of rapacious evil, quiet courage and the healing power of love.
The Irish folklore itself that this book is based off actually centers around Finn Mac Cumhail, one of the great warriors and heroes of the Fianna. Sive is mentioned in his tales as his first wife, but not in great detail. The legend goes that she was a beautiful woman who caught the eye of a dark man. She had refused him, and in his anger he had changed her into a deer. She wanders until Finn mac Cumahil and his men come across her, and they chase her. Finn and his two dogs are the only ones able to keep up, and as he bursts into a clearing, he sees the doe lying with the two dogs in the glade peacefully. After sparing the doe’s life, she turns back into her human form. He then marries her; but one day he sets off to war, and the dark sorcerer named Far Doirche appears to take her back. After she is turned into a dear once again and taken away, she is never heard from again in Irish mythology; though her son’s story continues. Holly has taken a character whose life is a mystery, and has written her an incredibly compelling story.
There are two worlds in this story: the mortal world, or Eire (Ireland), and the Otherworld, or Land of the Never-Aging. These two worlds lie parallel to one another, with doorways that connect them. Sive is of the Otherworld; and her journey takes her from her home in the Otherworld into the much harsher world of the mortal realm. And the first change that Bennett makes to the story is that she gives Sive the ability to choose to change into a deer in order to flee the Dark Man. And what an absolutely brilliant change it is. Sive is forced to give up her humanity in order to survive, and to save everyone from the thrall of the Dark Man.
The book is more of an emotional journey than anything. Though the action is minimal, the tension and suspense remains throughout; and I was never once bored. The connection to Sive, her parents, to Finn & Oisen, and even to Oran is strong. They are complex and utterly compelling. The story is truly about Sive and the people around her, as opposed to the action that myth and folklore often entail. But their characterization is much more compelling than any epic battle could be.
Holly Bennett’s prose is lyrical and wonderful. She stays true to the language and style of folklore, and never once did I feel jarred out of the story. Though written in third person, the voice was undeniably great. Sometimes this voice would stop viewing Sive to follow others, but it was never confusing. And every now and then, often at the end of a chapter, there would be sections in first person which would switch between Sive and Finn and Oisen; bits of passages where the characters themselves would remember what had happened and add their own voices to the story. I loved hearing the characters remembering the events; hearing them look back and discuss all the emotions and feelings that had been going though their heads at specific moments of the story.
I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. There are so many beautiful moments in this story, and I think it is a brilliant addition of a story in Irish mythology that she was able to flesh out. There are often huge gaps in time, as they story spans across many long years; but that is what folklore does. Some might find the breaks in time to be disappointing, but I did not. Holly kept the feel of folklore alive in this way, by focusing on the important events involving Sive (for truly, the story is her own, and not Finn’s or Oisin’s). The roles they play in her life are the most important. Her story is the bridge between both the legend of Finn and the legend of Oisin.
I also know that some believe the ending to be anticlimactic; but as I said before, Bennett never strayed her focus from Sive, and the emotional journey that is her story under the terror of Far Droiche. It felt as though I were reading a legend itself, in the way that some details were left out. I loved the ending, and though there is some sadness in it, I closed the book feeling incredibly satisfied (and only wishing it had been longer!). And I am normally the type of reader who feels robbed if, at the climax, an epic battle that I expect doesn’t occur. But I was completely in love with this story from start to finish; I never once felt any disappointment.
I highly recommend this book to any fellow myth/legend/folklore enthusiasts, and to anyone who loves fantasy, great prose, and a wonderfully epic story. This book has been one of my favourite reads all year, and I promise that you’ll be just as enchanted by it as I was. Now, you’ll have to excuse me; I have all of her other books to read now!
Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.