I picked this up from the new books bin at the library because the cover caught my eye:
I was immediately intrigued by the first few pages, when the unnamed narrator flees a grocery story because she is about to transform. She just has time to drive out into the country, call friends to let them know what is happening, park her car, and shuck her clothes, before the pain overwhelms her.
I'm crouching barefoot on the side of the road, but the pain drives me all the way to my knees. I can feel the dry knife-edge of the weed leaves slicing at my bare toes and ankles; I can feel the broken stone of the asphalt digging into my calves. But I scarcely notice. The migraine has enveloped my whole body. It is cracking my skull in two, it is pummeling my stomach, and I am bent over so far that my nose rest between my knees . . .One more powerful compression, as if a giant hand is squashing me from above with such force that I grunt involuntarily. And then it's all over.The pressure, the pain, the nausea. Gone, evaporated. I feel light, almost weightless. I feel lithe and strong and absolutely right. My body has once again survived a violent passage and rebirth and delivered me to a shape that calls to it as seductively as its own.For a moment, I just revel in the bliss of well-being, then I take a moment to determine what I am. I extend my left arm, to find it covered with fluffy marmalade fur; I've unsheathed five impressively sharp claws, and a slinky tail wraps around from behind. A cat then - housecat, probably. I don't feel large enough to be one of the bigger wild felines.
Though I'm not usually a fan of present-tense narration, I was seriously intrigued by that point. I've never read anything about shape-shifters, outside of wizard and witch stories. There the transformation is by choice, a matter of power and strong magic. Here it was involuntary, and the shape seemed to be outside the shifter's control. I definitely wanted to read more, though my squeamish side was more than a little concerned about bad things happening to animals, whether originally human or not.
Eventually we learn that the narrator is Karadel, who runs a vet practice that is also an animal sanctuary. There her fellow shape-shifters can get medical help, or just take cover during their transformations. She is part of a tight circle in their small Illinois town, who care for each other and the other shifters that are drawn to them. Over the course of the story we meet these others, and their "normal" allies, and learn some of their backstories, which highlight the challenges that shape-shifters face. It is an inherited trait; both of Kara's parents were shifters. We see the variety of forms that shifting takes: some can control when they shift, some only take one form when they shift, some are on a rotating schedule. Kara herself has been everything from an elephant to a bird, particularly in her turbulent teenage years. (When I read about her turn as a butterfly, I felt this surge of intense anxiety, for everything that could have happened to her in that state, which I think is a tribute to Sharon Shinn's talent in creating characters and story.) Kara is working on a series of experiments, using the blood serums of different shifters, to try to control factors like the timing and the form of transformation.
I learned later that this is the third in a series, the "Shifting Circle" books. The first two are already waiting for me at the library. I enjoyed this one from start to finish, and my own copy is on its way to me. It is very different from anything I've ever read in science fiction or fantasy. I found the set-up really interesting, both the shifting itself and the community of shifters and allies. I thought the transformations were handled really well, balancing the human and animal elements. Kara remains herself, as cat, wolf or dog. The animals are presented matter-of-factly and felt real. These aren't magical creatures (no werewolves). There is a sweet romance running through the story, but I found the love and kindness linking the circle just as compelling. And there was a plot twist at the end that came out of left field (hah) and caught me completely off guard - but made a lot of sense in retrospect. I am really looking forward to the first two books. I see that Sharon Shinn has written quite a few other books, and I will be exploring those as well.
I have to admit, I've been looking at animals and birds a little differently this week, thinking, What if....