The Shifter, by Janice Hardy (Balzer and Bray, HarperCollins, 2009, upper middle grade and beyond, 370 pp) is one of those books that just goes to show that fascinating ideas are still out there, waiting to be written about. That is to say that, I, at least, have never before encountered the magical idea at the center of this book.
In Nya's world, a place of conflict and conquest, Healers can shift pain, sickness, and injuries into a magical type of metal called pynvium. But there is a dark side to this seemingly benign process. Nya's city was conquered by a foreign people when she and her sister were young, in a war that killed her parents, and more war seems close at hand. And in this world pain can be used as weapon. Literally.
Nya's twelve-year old sister was accepted by the Healing Guild, and is safely housed in their headquarters. Fifteen-year old Nya, on the other hand, lives a hand to mouth life on the streets, scrounging for odd jobs, kicked at by the foreigners who are now in charge. Because although Nya can heal too, taking other people's injuries into herself, she can't transfer the pain into pynvium. But she can, however, push it into other people.
Now unscrupulous practitioners of pain and intrigue want to use Nya and her seemingly twisted gift. And dark and unpleasant things are happening back at the Healer's Guild, where the apprentices are falling "sick." Nya and her friends must figure out what's going on, and put a stop to it. In so doing she must find out how to use her gift for good, and, while saving her sister, maybe set in motion a way to save her city...
It's an exciting story, one that raises interesting ethical questions while entertaining the reader with interesting characters and situations. It starts a tad confusingly, but that feeling soon fades as the plot kicks into high gear. Nya is a stubborn and conflicted narrator, in pretty desperate circumstances, and it is a pleasure to cheer her on.
This book is marketed as a middle grade (9-12 year olds)--there are hints of possible future relationships, but no real "young adult" issues. There are some pretty heavy descriptions of injuries and pain, but nothing horribly disturbing, and I think it's fine for confident, older readers in this age group. It felt to me more like a young adult novel, though--Nya is older than most middle grade protagonists, and is engaged in a fairly complicated struggle--complicated ethically, politically, and in terms of day to day survival. And although romantic relationships are only hinted at as possible on the horizon in this book, it seems quite possible that the next book in the series will be moving YA-ward in that regard. At least, I hope it will...the young man in question is rather sweet, although maybe too good to be true.
The UK title of The Shifter is The Pain Merchants, and here's its cover over there. I like the UK title, but the US cover!
Finally, and somewhat tangentially, one thing that added to the book's appeal in my mind is that it is about two sisters. Being a sister myself, I am fond of books in which that relationship is a key motivating factor for the characters , as it is in The Hunger Games, Charlotte Sometimes, and, um, doubtless many other books...so if you have any other recommendations of fantasy books in which the relationship between a little sister and a big sister is important, let me know!
Here's an interview with Janice Hardy at The Enchanted Inkpot.
The Shifter is a Cybils nominee in the Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy category, for which I am a panelist.