Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review of The Shifter by Janice Hardy

Hardy, Janice. The Shifter. HarperCollins, 2009.

In 15-year-old Nya's world, injuries are treated not by doctors but by healers who can both mend wounds and take away pain with a special magical talent with which they are born. The pain they take away is then transferred to a stone called pynvium. This stone, once filled with pain, can be used to create weapons or other objects that use the stored pain to hurt or deter people.

Nya is a Taker - she can take away pain from people and even do some healing, although she hasn't been trained. But unlike her sister and the other healers, Nya can't transfer the pain into pynvium. Instead, she must transfer the pain into another person - which would make her a valuable weapon if the force occupying her small country of Geveg found out what she could do. But poverty, hardship, impending war, a strange lack of pynvium, and a bunch of healers going missing all compel Nya to do what she can for herself, her sister, and her country.

The care with which Nya's culture - its religion, its customs, and so on - are described reminds me of Tamora Pierce's fantasies. Nya's country is under hostile occupation, and this comes through on almost every page, whether Nya is shopping in the market or trying to save her sister from a despicable collaborator. If details about the countries around Geveg are a little vague, it is perfectly clear how Gevegians feel about the invaders who have killed them, stolen their property, and taken over their lives.

I remain fascinated by the central premise of the book - that pain won't disappear by itself (I assume) but must be actually taken out of the body. I can only assume that either the body won't heal on its own (a broken bone won't knit, say) in Nya's world, or else the people are used to healers magically healing them and taking away the pain that they've become intolerant of any pain and have forgotten that there is any other way to be healed. Even before doctors, we non-fantasy folks suffered through plenty of pain and injuries - couldn't Nya's people do the same? Why is there the need to take away pain magically? It seems to create more problems than it solves.

But this is the sort of thing I like to mull over, and I always appreciate a book that makes me think. The basic premise is a bit flawed, but absolutely intriguing. I do wish Hardy had made a bit more use of her fascinating setting - Geveg is composed of small islands linked by bridges, as we know from the map, but only the mention of boats and a storm lets us know that this is a coastal country. The islands are hardly mentioned at all.

Particularly for a first novel, this was a tight and well-thought-out story set in an intricate and intriguing world. I'm looking forward to the second in the series, due to come out this fall.

Recommended for grades 6 to 8.


  1. Great review! I put in a request at my branch. As soon as I saw the words "Tamora Pierce" I was interested.

    -Sophie L.

  2. Let me know what you think, Sophie!

  3. Hi Eva!

    Well, that was a good read! The pain issue was interesting to me as well. It seems like the people can heal themselves, but if you have the money to hire the healer, then you do so. There is that scene when Nya has to heal an aristocrat and she leaves a headache behind, which would be resolved naturally in a few days, but she is told to heal that as well. The poor can heal themselves, but many of their injuries seem to be repetitive stress injuries from their backbreaking work.

    I also was a little lost in the geography, and would have appreciate more of an explanation. I don't like maps, but without it the story would been more than a little confusing.

    I was also surprised at the level of violence, but I think that Nya has a strong moral compass, and it made clear throughout the book that she is making difficult choices.

  4. I really loved this book. The plot was really unique. I've seen a lot of really great reviews of this book and can't wait for the sequel.

    As to the geography, I think it's always tricky to know how much to include since this is more of a mid grade book. But from Janice's blog, you can really think she thought about it.

  5. Also interesting was the idea that some Takers who aren't trained as Healers (or who are extra nefarious) might take the pain away but not heal the underlying problem - so you might slowly die from internal bleeding, for instance.
    I'll have to read Hardy's website - just gave it a cursory glance so far.