Book Review: The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

Summary from Amazon: 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…

Judging this book by its cover, and by this jacket description, I envisioned something of a grown-up version of Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver. Boy was I wrong. Well, except for the part where the female leads are totally head over heels for their male love interests. I expected something along the lines of a typical “human girl loves werewolf” book in the vein of Charlaine Harris or urban paranormal romance like the Carrie Vaughn or Laurell K. Hamilton books. This book is not that at all.

I couldn’t figure out, at first, what it was that made this story so different, but in discussions with CDsquee, I finally put my finger on it. It’s the lack of world building. In most urban fantasy (and in high fantasy as well) there are many foreign, outside, fantasy elements, and the reader is expected to be thoroughly, believably, enmeshed in it. In order to do this, the author has to do substantial world building, even if that world is set within the parameters of our reality. The Shape of Desire has almost zero world building. You never get to see very far into the shape shifter’s realm. And that’s absolutely okay. It’s sort of refreshing. In fact, if you came to me as a writer and said, “Write a shape shifter book and do no world building,” I would laugh at you. So what Shinn has undertaken is quite daunting. I respect it.

The Shape of Desire is a first person narrative told from Maria’s perspective. Maria is a normal woman with a very average, realistic life. At times, I was almost bored by how ordinary her life was. She’s an accountant. She goes to work every day like a normal person. She goes shopping, she goes to family birthday parties, she eats dinner with her mother. Her co-workers and friends are almost more interesting that she is. But it’s a cover. Maria makes sure her life appears oh so ultra-normal so no one suspects the secrets she is hiding. Shinn uses the litany of mundane as a literary tool to juxtapose Maria’s normal life against the secret exciting life with Dante. It creates a sharp contrast and you start to understand the addiction that Maria has to this relationship. It’s almost like substance abuse with high highs and low lows. Maria is constantly craving her next “hit”.

There were times when I was so bored by Maria’s life away from Dante that I wondered if I would finish the book. CDsquee said she did find it mundane at times, but it didn’t bother her as much as me. I also tend to read a lot more high fantasy than her. Readers who don’t like strong fantasy elements would probably enjoy this book more than, for example, a Rachel Caine book. The plot involving the mystery of Dante and the brutal attacks in the local parks was interesting enough to keep me going when I might have given up. I didn’t always like Dante. He wasn’t as ideally attractive as the male heroes in urban fantasy often are. Sure he was handsome and sexy, but he was aloof and prickly. I often found myself telling Maria to leave him and get a life instead of spending so much time pining for a man she could only have for a few days a month. But, as I learned more about the history of their relationship, he became more sympathetic. The pace of the story picked up further into the book and the ending clenched it for me—it made me glad I stuck it out.

This book is less about the fantasy and magic and more about the complexity of relationships and what we’ll do in the name of love. There’s a sub plot in the story with a co-worker with an abusive husband. We start out suspecting this co-worker has something horrible going on in her life that she’s desperately trying to keep a secret. She comes to work with bruises and tends to avoid friendships and socializing with her co-workers. Unfortunately her secret comes out in a violent encounter. It’s a further allegory to illustrate the secret versus the public. The Shape of Desire is about the understanding that we all put on a sociable exterior, but whether its shape shifting, abuse, or a childhood tragedy, almost everyone is affected by secrets.

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