The Shifter (The Healing Wars: Book I) written by Janice Hardy, 370 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE

I am a fan of all things British, especially their fantasy writing, and I follow a great blog based in the UK called Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books that features reviews of new fantasy for kids that is frequently NOT being published in the US simultaneously or even a year down the road.  On January 11, the short list for the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize, the closest thing to the Newbery Award here in the US, with the exception that the award can be won by a book who's author is not British (unlike the Newbery, which can only be won by an American.  I guess Neil Gaiman's Green Card is good enough for the ALA) was announced on this blog.  As I perused the list, reading the summaries of all these wonderful sounding books that I might never get to read, I was intrigued by Janice Hardy's  book, The Shifter, then surprised and thrilled to lear that she is an American and that this book is available here in paperback and waiting for me on the shelf of the bookstore where I work!  And, naturally, the James Brown of cover illustrators, Brandon Dorman has provided the always wonderful artwork for this trilogy.  Once I started reading, I could not put this book down, even reading while I walked my dogs in the morning - my apologies to the cats they charged at because I wasn't paying attention...

When you read a lot of any genre, you find that there are recurring themes, characters and settings that are inescapable.  While there are many gifted writers who can take these universal ideas and add something new and brilliant to them,  I am sure you all know how exhilarating it is to dig into something that feels completely new and different and be consumed by it.  That is exactly how I felt as I plowed through the first chapters of The Shifter. Before I talk about the story as a whole (and I have so much to say about it - this is going to be a long review - sorry) I need to first mention the geography of this amazing world Janice Hardy has built.  While not described as much as I would have liked in this first book (understandably, there were so many other characters and plot elements vying for attention) the landscape of Geveg feels very unique for a fantasy setting.  The mangos, sweet potatoes and hibiscus, the clear blue water, the afternoon rainstorms, the plentiful fish and the crocodiles that roam the many canals linking the land that makes up the Geveg Isles felt so immediately different from the rumbling, dark cities, the harsh medieval countrysides and the impenetrable forests that are such familiar terrain in most fantasy books that I have been immersed in. When I asked Janice Hardy how she came to envision this land I was even more impressed and fascinated by this world after reading her email reply:

The landscape developed over time. When I was first creating the story, I saw a James Bond movie and one of the scenes took place in Venice. I thought, how cool would it be to do a canal city like that, but I wanted to do it on a big lake instead of an ocean. I started researching the world's biggest lakes, and the one that fit the best was Lake Victoria in Africa. Huge, but shallow, and it seemed logical that you'd need a shallow lake to build a whole city on it. I decided I might as well use that area as a setting, since you don't see a lot of tropical islands in fantasy. I like to use real places as a foundation when I build my worlds (that way you don't have to make everything up), and I grew up up in South Florida so it was also familiar to me. I change things as I need to of course, but having a real place makes it easier to find the little details like weather, what food grows there, what types of animals and plants, etc. I mixed and matched a Renaissance-level Venice (that was my technology time line base)  with Africa and got Geveg. 

But, the most amazing, exciting aspect of The Shifter is the magical skill that Hardy imbues her characters with - the ability to heal by laying hands on a sick or injured person and physically removing the pain, wounds and disease. Hardy takes this talent and builds a world around it that makes it almost a liability instead of a gift.  As she says in her author's notes, "For  The Shifter, I was playing around with common ideas in fantasy stories, trying to turn them on their heads and see if I could do something funky and new with them.  I stumbled onto healing, which is always used for good. I wondered what I could do to make it used for evil, and the rest of the story developed from there." How Hardy does this involves men seeking power, an exhaustible resource and war. In The Shifter the Healers, also known as Takers and Pain Merchants, depending on who they are working for, heal by removing pain and illness and placing it into a receptacle, a mineral called pynvium (pronounced PIN-vium.)  As Hardy responded when I asked her about the pronunciation and creation of the word:
Pynvium actually comes from the Afrikaans word "pyn" for pain. I used a lot of Afrikaans words as names. Kinda my own in joke. Geveg means struggle (fitting for a city struggling for independence) Baseer means hurt (the ones doing the hurting). I did it a lot more in books two and three as well. I enjoyed it so much I think I'll use words from whatever culture/area I base my worlds on in every book from now on. And I've found it gives me a much  more interesting answer when people ask me where I came up with the names (grin). I get that question a lot, especially during school visits. 

A rock of pynvium can be filled with pain and becomes useless when completely saturated. However, certain people called Enchanters smelt the raw ore and turn it into bricks used to store pain. The Enchanters can also take the pain filled pynvium and turn it into a weapon that, when activated, creates a flash of pain that can ward off or even injure an attacker.  Some years before the start of the book, the Duke of Baseer, a country to the north of Geveg, invaded the country in an attempt to control its pynvium mines. When the story begins, the Duke is in the process of invading Verlatta and Sorille, countries to the east and west that also border Baseer. The brutal invasion by has meant that the upper and middle classes of Geveg, if they survived the initial invasion, have lost all their property and livelihoods to the new ruling Baseeri, who find themselves superior to the natives and show it at all times. The Gevegians, or 'Vegs, as they are sneeringly called by the Baseeri, scramble for jobs and work and have an even harder time keeping them. Hardy makes the social implications and parallels hard to miss in her book and they are worth discussing with your reader. When the curly headed blond main character Nya is harassed in front of a crowd of people by an Elder at the League of Healing and no one moves to help her, she thinks to herself, "Why would they? I was just some river rat and nobody questioned an Elder, though I'd bet a week's lunches that if my hair was Baseeri black, someone would have stepped forward." On top of these issues of discrimination, Hardy layers the realization and implications that come with Nya being a Shifter, a Taker who can remove pain and shift it to another person, thus causing harm and going against the core values of the gift that she has grown up around.

Nya, who is approximately fifteen, and her younger sister Tali, who is twelve or so, are orphans. They children of upper class parents. Their mother was a Healer, their father an Enchanter and their Grannyma the Luminary, head Healer at the Healers' League. The girls were practically raised within the well appointed grounds of the Healers' League but now find themselves living hand to mouth. Except for the fact that Tali has recently been accepted into the League as a Healer in training. Nya was turned away. While she is a Taker, she is not able to transfer the take into pynvium, making her useless as a Healer. Nya and her family have known since an early age that she is a Shifter and her mother warned her never to use that skill. However, the existence of the Gevegians is now so tenuous that they are often faced with critical decisions that could mean the downfall of not only themselves but their families if they choose poorly. If a father is ill or injured and cannot work, the lives of his wife and children are thrown into jeopardy and they are one step away from being homeless and transient, in search of enough work just to feed themselves. As a resident of San Diego county, I found myself thinking often of the migrants who cross the increasingly dangerous border to find work in America in an effort to send money back to their families. More often, though, I found myself thinking about health care issues in our own country and the many Americans who have been bankrupted by an illness or injury that they could not afford to pay for or recover from and the ways that the health care industry continues to profit, much like the new Baseeri Luminary. Besides the Healers' League, there are Pain Merchants, Takers working outside of the organized League, who are not as skilled or ethical as their fellow Healers. In fact, in England, The Shifter has been retitled, The Pain Merchants, a more hard hitting title that, I think, is a more accurate indicator of the brutality, selfishness and lack of regard for human life that the Duke and his Baseeri occupiers exhibit.

In the first pages of The Shifter Nya is confronted with this dilemma, one that she can't seem to shake.  Stealing eggs from a chicken coop in the middle of the night, a young guard, not much older than Nya, catches her. When the Rancher Heclar arrives on the scene and she can't bargain her way out of being hauled off to prison, Nya gives chase. Stumbling over crates, the night guard almost catches her but, injured himself, tells her to run for it.  Aware of the pain in his hands (she noticed that "his knuckles were white from too tight a grip on so light a weapon. That had to mean joint pain, maybe even knuckleburn... I guess that's why he had a crummy job guarding chickens instead of aristocrats. My luck hadn't been that great either.) she reaches out and draws it from him before fleeing.  But, as she turns to leave Heclar is there with a blue-black pynvium club that he swings at her head. Down and in pain, Nya grabs the guard's leg and the Rancher's and shifts the injury from the boy to the man, allowing her to run free. News of the shift that Nya performed soon spreads like wild fire, and many different types - some unsavory, some just desperate - begin to hunt for her. Meanwhile, Tali tells Nya that apprentices at the Healers' League have been disappearing and there are rumors that the Slab, the chunk of pynvium the size of a bale of hay that the Healers use, is full and there is no more in sight. With the Slab full and the Healers having no place to dump the illness and injuries that they are relieving citizens of, the Healers themselves are taking ill, their blood thickening. When the Healers announce to the city that the apprentices have all died from this illness, a riot breaks out. How Nya confronts this, and the possibility that her sister has died, as well as the plotting, treason and theft being carried out by a devious Pain Merchant and the Luminary, plus the knowledge that one of the Elder Healers has been allowing the apprentices to overflow with the pain and illness of others so that he can study the effects takes up the rest of the novel.

As a character, Nya's motivations are clear - she wants to protect and save the only family member she has left, Tali.  However, her ability to shift and the machinations of the Duke and those in power below him make this task a complicated one. Throughout the book Nya continually struggles with the ethical nature of the kind of healing she is secretly practicing. When Nya can heal the joints of the young night guard, Danello, allowing him to find a better paying job by harming the mean spirited Rancher Heclar, who can afford to take himself to the Healers' League, the dilemma does not seem so bad.  However, when she is captured by a Pain Merchant and told she will be paid well to shift the pain from a dying Baseeri girl to a Gevegian fisherman, willing to accept it in return for a year's paid rent that will ensure the survival of his family, Nya struggles with the choices before her. The girl will die if her pain is not shifted soon. The man is willing to take the pain, which may or may not kill him, so that his family can survive. On top of that, the Baseeri parents clearly feel that their lives are more important than the fisherman's and are horrified when Nya suggests that they take on some of the pain so that the fisherman does not suffer so intensely. Not only is she confronted with personal choices and decisions, but all around her people are acting in ways that are selfish and selfless, abominable and admirable, behaviors that make choosing even more complicated. Hardy fills the book with characters who are stuck in these gray areas - a young girl who works for the Baseeri in order to have a roof over her head, but is then shunned by the Gevegians for doing so. A boy decides to take the pain, shared among his younger siblings, so that his injured father can return to work and keep supporting their family. A girl betrays her countrymen and peers to keep a well paying job with the promise of advancement and a boy who is fond of her withholds information from his friends to protect her. I can't think of a children's book I've read before that presents so many crucial, ethical dilemmas with so much gray area.  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, in which characters are placed in situations that allow them to choose to suffer and even die in the place of another is the only other book I can think of that comes close to the situations presented in The Shifter.  Somehow, though, with the ability to heal and the opportunities to use it for destruction instead of good and the decisions that Nya faces make the book seem more mature and complex at times.  As Nya says near the end of the book:

      We'd all done terrible things out of desperation.  Things we'd never have considered before the Duke first invaded us, kicked us even harder when we tried to rebel.  Danello wouldn't have asked me to shift in his family.  Lanelle wouldn't have hurt her friends to keep her job.  I wouldn't have hurt strangers to save friends.  None of it was right, but stitch together enough wrongs, and it makes a blanket that almost keeps out the chill.

I was tired of shivering under the Duke's blankets.

Which brings me to my final thought.  This book is not for sensitive readers.  Action packed, it feels like there is one disaster after another, from a ferry wreck at the start of the book to riots and memories of the actions of the Baseeri during the siege that meant that Nya's mother left the Healers' League to fight and came home in a wooden box. Her Grannyma, the Luminary, was dragged out of the Healers' League and her body was not returned at all. More specific descriptions of the ravages of war are also included here and there. Because the main characters of the book are Healers, the descriptions of actual suffering are an important but sometimes upsetting part of the book as well. And, finally, what Nya learns to do with the pain that she draws and remnants of the pynvium that she obtains opens up yet another realm of pain and destruction. However, all of this is responsibly portrayed, always in service of the plot and never gratuitous. As with Collins' The Hunger Games the characters in The Shifter are so well drawn and complex and the reader is so interested in their growth and their journey that the violence and cruelty that surrounds them, while disturbing, propels their story and deepens their struggles making the outcomes more deeply satisfying.

Book two in the trilogy, Blue Fire, is now available in hardcover.  
Book three, Darkfall, is due out OCTOBER 4, 2011!!

The covers of the British editions!

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