Jennifer Roberson

Cover of Shapechangers

Rank: D
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Spring, 2004

Author Name: Jennifer Roberson

Review: It’s easy to heap abuse on bad writers like this guy, but I want to make very clear, and very explicit why I don’t like this book, and why I think it’s not a very good book. There are very specific reasons, and I will go over a few (yes, a few) of them.

To start out with the minor issues, why is it that people who don’t create languages think they can create languages? And by “people”, I mean fantasy authors. Roberson’s shapechangers are called the Cheysuli. If you are a Cheysul, you are Cheysuli. Note the suffix. Sound familiar? Compare: winter > wintry; wind > windy; splotch > splotchy, Pakistan > Pakistani, etc. One of the words used to refer to the main female character in the book is mei’jhan. While you try to figure out what the apostrophe’s doing there (I still can’t figure it out), the word means something like “my sister” or “my clanswoman”. Can you guess which word is “my”?

Now here’s more fun. Quoting from her website (with my emphasis added in italics):

“Readers constantly write me for permission to use characters, worlds, languages, and other details from my stories and books…. In each case I must refuse permission for this activity.”

First, I take offense to her calling these little bits of hackneyed exoticisms “languages”, and second, uh…who can patent a language? For example, you all should know that I’m writing in English without permission. In fact, I’ll even take a moment to expand it without permission: a “blirk” is kind of like a balk where you blink, move backwards, and say something aloud like, “Bah?” in surprise. Ha! Now I own part of the language! Now whenever anyone uses the word “blirk”, or derivations thereof (“blirking”, “blirked”, “blirks”, “blirkable”, etc.) I get royalties! Right? Well, at least I get credit, right? What? That’s not how language works? Hmm… But Jennifer Roberson said…

Onto the book. The first thing that happens is the main character (I’ll give her the name X, since I don’t want to bother looking it up) comes across a male named Carillon (how convenient that that name sounds so English-like…), and it’s set up to be a traditional fairytale where a servant meets a prince, and they fall in love and live happily ever after. But, to everyone’s surprise, this doesn’t happen! How do we know it’s a surprise? Because we’re told it’s a surprise in no uncertain terms on every page! Not explicitly, mind, but in a way that’s supposed to produce a conditioned response. For example, the phrase I remember most from this book is, “But she was a croft girl!” It occurs at least once every chapter. We’re reminded constantly that (cue the heartfelt sarcasm) this is a low class girl, who could not but expect to be the lowest of the low, and should expect nothing from society, and because her parentage is low, that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it always should be!

For those who’ve read other reviews of mine, you know that I dislike being told by an author what to think. If that’s what I wanted, I’d join the military—at least you get “paid”. But we’re expected to pay for this?! It’s as if the author is afraid that if she doesn’t point out the irony she’s creating, we’ll miss it—and perhaps that’s true for her readership. I’m certainly glad not to be one of them.

Another thing that bothered me about this book was how clear it was that it was a product of the 70s (it came out in ’84—the 1976 of the 80s). The whole women’s lib thing was in full swing, and this book seems to want to say how it “really” is. While it’s true that the main character (a humble croft girl!) does something in the end (has an independent thought, I think), the general message seems to be that misogynists are right, to an extent. Women can succeed, and go off and do their own thing—just as long as there are men there to keep them in line. It’s really, really bizarre, and someone else will have to read this to see if they get the same impression. Perhaps it’s something that changes in the books to come (oh, yes: this is a series), which I’ll never read. It struck me as rather…unsettling, though.

Finally, the plot was not interesting. Some of the premises may have been interesting, but ideas aren’t novels (a fact that seems to be lost on the publishing industry these days). Basically, there are two types of people: ordinary humans, and extraordinary humans (the Cheysuli!) that can change shape into animals and have animal familiars. X is taken hostage by the Cheysuli, who are feared and despised by the humans, and Carillon goes off to save her. X is then Patty Hearsted into believing that she is Cheysuli, and it turns out to be true! And so then the novel becomes about something else, at which point in time I stopped paying attention. The end has her in a castle doing something or other.

There’s no need to read this book. If you happen to be Jennifer Roberson, feel free to sue me for using the word “tahlmorra”. That’s right: I’m using it without permission. Might also want to figure out what constitutes a language, and how it can be used.

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