The Shape of Desire, by Sharon Shinn

>> Sunday, August 05, 2018

TITLE: The Shape of Desire
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

PAGES: 336

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Urban Fantasy
SERIES: First in the Shifting Circle series

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 Shape of Desire is the first book in the Shifting Circle series, Shinn's foray into Urban Fantasy. The fantasy element here comes from shapeshifters living amongst us. The hero, Dante, is one of them. It's not a gentle, controlled thing for these shapeshifters. The shift comes every month, but they're not able to control when and where, or to stop it, and they don't know when they'll shift back to a human body.

This is particularly difficult for Dante's long-term partner, Maria. Maria is not a shifter, but she found out about Dante's nature long ago and has learnt to cope with the man she loves disappearing at a moment's notice. She tries to help in what she can and realises there's no point being upset about something neither she nor Dante can change, but it's hard. It's not just the unpredictability and the worry that, as time passes, Dante is spending more and more time in his animal form (does this mean he'll end up shifting for good?). There's also the fear that while he's in his animal form, he's not human and in control. Anything could happen to him... an accident, someone capturing him or killing him... and Maria may never know what happened.

And then a series of attacks take place not too far from Maria and Dante's place, all of them at times when she knows Dante has shifted. And Maria starts to worry that when Dante's in animal form and not in control, it may not be just him that's in danger.

This one felt quite different from other Shinn books. It had a bittersweet, melancholy vibe, and this was one that went pretty well with the topic and characters.

I had mixed feelings about this book. My main problem was that I found it really hard to root for Maria and Dante's relationship. There seemed to be an imbalance of power there, since it was very clear that there was nothing Dante could do that Maria wouldn't forgive. In fact, she would completely ignore it and protect him from the consequences, even if it was him being a murderer. Maria basically adores Dante, and will not make any demands from him. Yes, there are things that are not in his power to do (like change the way the biological facts of shape-shifting work), so there is no point in demanding, but there were things he could have done to make things easier on Maria (and a lot of information he had and just did not share).

And the problem is that this uncompromising love and adoration were very clear on her side, but not so much on Dante's. I think Shinn was probably trying to tell us he felt just as strongly about Maria as she did for him, but that didn't really come through, and the relationship felt extremely one-sided. All I got from his actions was that she was convenient for him, but not really much more. That's partly because we were only in her point of view, but only partly. I have read plenty of books where another character's feelings were perfectly clear, even when the narrator is completely oblivious to them. As a result of this imbalance, I'm afraid I found Maria a bit pathetic.

Outside of the main relationship, though, if I accepted that this was a portrayal of a sad, one-sided relationship, there were quite a few things that worked for me. The plot is interesting, and Shinn does some quite interesting world-building. There's the obvious one of the shapeshifters, but there's also a lot of work in making Maria's world real. Like, a lot of mundane detail about office life... Maria is an accountant and we find out whom Maria had lunch with, hear her conversations with her friend Ellen, and so on. Sounds tedious, maybe, but I actually liked that. With Shinn, I always sink into her stories, and this was not the exception.

So, not great, but I still enjoyed it, mostly.



Barb in Maryland 5 August 2018 at 18:08  

I liked the next two books in the series better than this one; I gave this one a solid B. I really enjoyed the sections with Maria at work--those were fun. I also noted the side story of her co-worker with the abusive husband. Shinn managed to convince me that Kathleen's story(she's sticking with hubs because she lurves him) is 'different' than Maria's, but it was a close run thing at times.
Dante, Maria and Lizzie have cameos in book 2 (Still Life with Shape-Shifter) where they seem to be doing fine.

Rosario 6 August 2018 at 04:27  

Oh, yes, the coworker, that was actually well-done, although for a minute I thought it was going to backfire and end up proving the opposite point! But yes, she just about succeeded with that one! :)

I've read book 2 already now, and I agree, it's better. And really, even a not great Shinn book is enjoyable.

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