The ancient Irish tale of the great hero Finn mac Cumhail tells how he chased a white deer and found the love of his life. For the deer was a woman named Sive, one of the Sidhe, the fairy folk, who had been trapped in the shape of a deer by the dark magic of an evil druid. Inside the shelter of Finn's holding, she is safe, until trickery draws her out again, and once again she must live as a deer; but this time, she has Finn's baby at her side.
And in that story, Finn finds his young son eventually, but never sees Sive again....
Shapeshifter, by Holly Bennett (Orca, 2010, YA, 237 pages) takes the bare bones of Sive's story and makes them come alive. She gives it a beginning--the story of Sive as a young girl, with a magical voice whose songs can persuade anyone who hears them to do whatever she asks. This gift is the reason why the dark druid to wants to possess her...to use her power for his own nefarious purposes.
But Sive has another gift--she can transform herself into a deer, and while she is in that shape, the druid cannot find her or compel her to his will. So for lonely years she lives in exile, until she finds her way to Finn...and human love. As in the original story, it doesn't last, but it is Finn's son, raised by his mother in fleeting human moments snatched from the hateful power of the druid, who will ultimately save her. And so Sive's story gets a bittersweet ending--she is saved from her curse, but will never be able to return to Finn again.
On the one hand, this is a dreamlike, rather lovely, and rather moving story. On the other, it's told with a slight distance to it, that kept me from finding it completely absorbing and convincing. The narrative is primarily from Sive's third-person point of view, with occasional alternate perspectives, also third person, which is fine--I don't mind that. But, in a series of interjections, various characters (primarily Sive) look back on events, and tell in the first person how they felt at the time. I'm not sure it did anything that omniscient third person couldn't have done--it didn't make me feel closer to the characters; in fact, it did the opposite, because of throwing me out of the world of the story.
A similar feeling of distance gradually builds as the story progresses, because of the faster passing of the years. We see Sive's earlier adventures in great detail, but once she's become a deer, time moves rapidly, so her life with Finn, and her life with her son, are not given in great detail. Obviously, there are limits to what the author could include, but it still felt as though the characters were moving away from the reader, back into a distant story.
With regard to shapeshifting, however, Bennett has done a lovely job! Sive's dual life as woman and as deer is beautifully and convincingly explored. Although this is not a book I'd call a must read, I do recommend it to those who like shapeshifting tales and retellings of legends--it has a lovely fairy tale feel to it.