by Vanessa Di Gregorio
When I pick up a book, I like to find myself immersed in a culture that is richly imagined and full of great characters. And with fantasy, I love when an author is able to make magic wholly unique. In Janice Hardy’s middle-grade novel, The Shifter (known as The Pain Merchants in the UK), that is exactly what is done.
And don’t let “middle-grade” fool you; while the book, if written for an older audience, could perhaps have been a bit darker, the book is by no means childish. It is well-written, complex, full of deceit, and ripe with betrayal; it is littered with political intricacies and so much cultural depth. So I hope none of you dismiss this book; this is the type of middle grade novel that can easily appeal to older audiences.
Hardy has imagined a world where pain can not only be drawn out of a person through touch, but where pain is a commodity. She has created a world so culturally, religiously, and historically rich; so full of colour and wonderful vocabulary. Hardy throws you right into this world; and while it might take you time to figure out the cultural slang, political situation, and how exactly magic works for Takers (those who draw pain out of others), you’ll find yourself absorbed nonetheless. Nya is a wonderful voice; she is conflicted, and is not a moral saint by any means. She finds herself often faced with difficult decisions that aren’t clear-cut; there are many gray areas that Hardy is able to explore in this novel. And that was one of the most enjoyable things about The Shifter.
So, want to know more? Here’s a description from Goodreads:
Nya is an orphan struggling for survival in a city crippled by war. She is also a Taker—with her touch, she can heal injuries, pulling pain from another person into her own body. But unlike her sister, Tali, and the other Takers who become Healers’ League apprentices, Nya’s skill is flawed: She can’t push that pain into pynvium, the enchanted metal used to store it. All she can do is shift it into another person, a dangerous skill that she must keep hidden from forces occupying her city. If discovered, she’d be used as a human weapon against her own people.
Rumors of another war make Nya’s life harder, forcing her to take desperate risks just to find work and food. She pushes her luck too far and exposes her secret to a pain merchant eager to use her shifting ability for his own sinister purposes. At first Nya refuses, but when Tali and other League Healers mysteriously disappear, she’s faced with some difficult choices. As her father used to say, principles are a bargain at any price; but how many will Nya have to sell to get Tali back alive?
The plot moves swiftly; it is well-paced, exciting, and just wonderfully imagined. Hardy’s premise is innovative; and it carries a lot of weight. Full of action and adventure, this story will keep the pages turning; and right from the first chapter, you’ll be thrown into the fray. We see the world through the eyes of Nya, whose voice is very engaging and realistic; written in first-person, every difficult decision she is faced with is all the more agonizing as we see her struggle with the choices laid out before her. She is headstrong, but not overly so. While some characters seemed a bit more flat than others, overall I was pleased with them; they all have their own varying opinions, and all of them are very memorable. The contrast between everyone’s differing personalities was wonderful; Danello’s little twin brothers, for example, just stole my heart as soon as I was introduced to them. Soek, who was quite possibly my favourite character, plays a minor role; and yet I felt that he was fleshed out perfectly – not too much (being more of a minor character), but not too little either (for it seems we’ll be seeing more of him in the next book). His lines were funny, he wasn’t perfect, and I just found him to be incredibly interesting.
Full of political intrigue and betrayals, it does get a bit confusing closer to the end; with the Pain Merchants, the Duke, the League, and the Luminary all working towards their own ends (which aren’t always obvious), it can get a bit convoluted. Some motivations aren’t as developed or as clear as I would’ve hoped them to be. However, a lot of it is eventually explained; and hints are dropped along the way. So there is lead-up; the twists don’t come out of nowhere, and yet are still exciting to figure out. It’s also nice to not be able to predict where the story will go. And there is action! Lots of it!
Plus, I love the cover; it immediately grabbed my attention when I first saw it.
The first of a trilogy, I’ll definitely be picking up the second book, Blue Fire (which comes out in October). I really want to see where Nya and the others will go; I want to explore more of the world Hardy has created, learn more about Nya’s powers, and find out what the Duke is really up to. There are mysteries that I would like to see unlocked, and details I would love to further delve into. This is one adventure I don’t want to miss out on.
So overall, The Shifter was an enjoyable read; especially if you’re a fantasy nut (like me)!
Book received from publisher.
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.