Tough Travelling: Shapeshifters
Welcome to Tough Travelling, a monthly feature in which we rack our brains for popular (and not so popular) examples of fantasy tropes.
Created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, revived on Fantasy Faction and now continued by the team here at the Hive, Tough Travelling is inspired by the informative and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Fellow bloggers are absolutely welcome to join in – just make your own list, publish it on your site, and then submit the link at the end of this article!
This month, we’re searching for SHAPESHIFTERS. Before we begin, let’s see what the Tough Guide has to say about them:
“Shapeshifting is frequent among both WERES and MAGIC USERS. The usual form taken is that of a wolf, but lions, eagles, serpents, owls and cats are common too. In all cases the Rule is that the Shapeshifter cannot stay too long in ANIMAL form without actually becoming that animal and losing touch with her/his human thoughts.”
– The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones
(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)
Gardens of the Moon introduced us to the concept of Soletaken when Anomander Rake veered into his draconian form. Surely nothing could be more terrifying than facing an opponent with the power to transform at will into something much more monstrous than themselves. Right?
Meet the D’ivers! If the name doesn’t immediately give it away, let me clue you in. You know how Voldemort turned his snake, Nagini, into a Horcrux (aka. a living repository for a piece of his own soul)? Now imagine if he’d been able to a) split himself into multiple animagus forms, and b) use those forms as living Horcruxes.
He couldn’t, of course. But these guys can.
(Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith)
You could be forgiven for assuming A.F.E. Smith’s debut is a tame, fluffy tale about a magical unicorn. I assumed the same. But trust me when I say that there’s *nothing* tame or fluffy about Darkhaven.
Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: that’s not actually a unicorn. It’s an alicorn; a hybrid of the ‘pure’ Changer (shapeshifting) forms of griffin and unicorn. Why does it matter? Because the Nighshade family pride themselves on the purity of their unique bloodline. According to its current patriarch – who follows the Targaryen-esque approach of, um, ‘keeping it in the family’ – his daughter’s alicorn form is as shameful as her rebelliousness is unacceptable. (He himself takes the ‘pure’ form of a mighty firedrake, because ‘nothing keeps people honest like the fear of a fire-breathing lizard turning up on their doorstep.’)
(The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan)
Duncan takes the werewolf myth and gifts it an eloquent reflective first-person narrator. Jake – the eponymous lycanthrope – is very conflicted. Duncan brilliantly conveys the dichotomy of a beast within a man. Lycanthropy is not so much a disease as a schizophrenia where one personality is ferociously addicted to carnage. There are many motifs to catch the eye; Duncan’s werewolves only age in their lupine form, extending Jake’s lifespan from the early Victorian era comfortably into the 21st century – a longevity that depresses rather than inspires him. The werewolves are pursued by a clandestine global corporation as powerful as James Bond’s Spectral adversary, hunting lycanthropes and making deals with colonies of vampires. Duncan’s werewolves acquire some fragmentary memories from those they consume – reminiscent of Jeff Salyard’s Bloodsounder’s Arc. But throughout the book it is Jake’s powerful voice that captivates with his charm, amuses with his witty literary allusions, and in the end makes the reader sympathise – empathise, even – with a monster that shreds humans and juggles their souls like a dog playing with a ball.
(Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling)
The process by which a witch or wizard may become an animagus is a rare and strictly controlled one. Only a handful of magic users have ever successfully attempted it, including Harry’s teacher, Harry’s dad, Harry’s godfather, Harry’s dad’s/godfather’s best mates, and Harry’s dad’s best mates’ owls (probably).
Despite the powerful magic needed to cast the (permanent) spell, there’s simply no way of controlling what animal you end up as. You might be a slug. Imagine being a slug? Forever? Embarrassing.
(The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien)
“If you must know more, his name is Beorn. He is very strong, and he is a skin-changer.” So says Gandalf. Some of us might argue that, yes, Bilbo and co. probably should know more, but whatever, Gandalf. You keep your secrets if it makes you feel special.
Beorn is a huge warrior who can turn into a great black bear. In human form, he appears as a tall, black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. Beorn keeps many animals at his residence, such as horses, dogs and sheep. No one really knows why, but his animals are all extremely intelligent; his dogs, for instance, can walk on their hind legs while carrying things with their forelegs, set the table, and even speak. Beorn’s horses can also understand what their master said. This is NEVER EXPLAINED, nor regarded as even remotely weird.
(The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett)
The Painted Man introduces all manner of terrors. Wood demons, flame demons, water demons, oh my. But one of the most fearsome creatures to stalk the night has to be the mimic demon.
In thrall to the greater mind demons, mimic demons are essentially puppets.
The mimic demon can become a perfect copy of whatever the mind demon wants it to, and can imitate the appearance and even the voices of humans. The mimic can also take any demon’s form and copy its abilities.
Mimic demons are also bodyguards to the Mind Demon. Each mimic is linked with the same mind demon for its lifetime.
(Steal the Sky by Megan O’Keefe)
Detan Honding, a wanted conman of noble birth and ignoble tongue, has found himself in the oasis city of Aransa. He and his trusted companion Tibs may have pulled off one too many cons against the city’s elite and need to make a quick escape. They set their sights on their biggest heist yet—the gorgeous airship of the exiled commodore Thratia.
But in the middle of his scheme, a face changer known as a doppel starts murdering key members of Aransa’s government. The sudden paranoia makes Detan’s plans of stealing Thratia’s ship that much harder. And with this sudden power vacuum, Thratia can solidify her power and wreak havoc against the Empire. But the doppel isn’t working for Thratia and has her own intentions. Did Detan accidentally walk into a revolution and a crusade? He has to be careful—there’s a reason most people think he’s dead. And if his dangerous secret gets revealed, he has a lot more to worry about than a stolen airship.
(Psy-Changeling by Nalini Singh)
The shapeshifters from Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series are awesome. The Snowdancer pack are wolves who control most of southern and central California. Changelings in this series are people who have the ability to shift into an animal form (lots of different packs, predatory and non-predatory) on demand. They’re stronger than humans, generally live in wilderness areas, and are more concerned with the environment and social dynamics than the humans.
(Skin Walker by Faith Hunter)
Jane Yellowrock is a Cherokee skinwalker and regularly takes the form of a puma, but she can shift into other forms if she has a sample of their DNA (usually a tooth or bone).
There are also more traditional werewolves later in this series. But who cares about those when you’ve got shapeshifting pumas?
(Heartstrikers by Rachel Aaron)
As the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan, Julius survives by a simple code: keep quiet, don’t cause trouble, and stay out of the way of bigger dragons. But this meek behavior doesn’t fly in a family of ambitious magical predators, and his mother, Bethesda the Heartstriker, has finally reached the end of her patience.
Now, sealed in human form and banished to the DFZ–a vertical metropolis built on the ruins of Old Detroit–Julius has one month to prove that he can be a ruthless dragon or kiss his true shape goodbye forever. But in a city of modern mages and vengeful spirits where dragons are considered monsters to be exterminated, he’s going to need some serious help to survive this test.
Technically, the dragons aren’t shifters. They just adopt a human guise as they are on our plane. But we’re totally counting them here.
(Apprentice Adept by Piers Anthony)
In Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series (which features parallel worlds of science and magic) many shifters are present in the fantasy parallel, Phaze, and some of them actually have three forms (triple-changers!). For instance, one of the first races the protagonist (Stile) encounters is a race of unicorns that transform both into humans and into another flying form, depending on their choice (one character is a hummingbird, for example, while another is a hawk).
There are multiple shifters in the fantasy world of Apprentice Adept, and one is present in the science parallel (Photon) as well: an alien named Agape, who is basically a sentient blob alien that can take any form, including human (so can shift into basically anyone). Kind of like the T-1000 before the T-1000 hit the big screen, but one that’s nice, rather than one that wants to kill you.
(The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks)
Another example of shapeshifters comes from Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. In the second book, Elfstones of Shannara (recently converted into the MTV series), is a demon called the Changeling. I’m sure readers can guess what it does . . .
The Changeling is an ancient Demon, a shapeshifter that can inhabit the form of any being it chooses. It is an extremely dangerous creature that was one of the first three Demons to escape the Forbidding, along with the Dagda Mor and the Reaper.
Long ago, the Changeling presumably fought in the War of the Races against the Elves and other races of the Four Lands. It was then sealed away in the Forbidding by the Ellcrys . . . but not for long.
(Discworld by Terry Pratchett)
Captain Delphine Angua von Überwald is a member of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, originally hired as part of an affirmative action plan by Havelock Vetinari. Her physical beauty led coworkers to predict that criminals would be lining up to be arrested by her, but Angua’s surprising strength and tough attitude soon made her one of the most feared officers on the Watch . . . for good reason.
Angua comes from a family of werewolves (she is what is known as a ‘bi-morph’), but Angua rebels against the traditional werewolf lifestyle of her parents and joins the City Watch instead.
She is a vegetarian.
THE SAINTE ANNE ABORIGINALS
(The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe)
The Fifth Head of Cerberus is an example of a really subtle use of the shapeshifter trope to look at colonialism and the erasure of indigenous cultures.
It is set 20 light-years from Earth, and revolves around the double planets of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix (originally settled by French-speaking colonists, but lost by them in a war with an unnamed enemy). Sainte Anne was (perhaps) once home to an indigenous aboriginal culture (at an apparently pre-paleolithic level of technology) of shapeshifters, who may – or may not – have been wiped out by the human incomers.
Within the novel, Veil’s Hypothesis is the theory that the Sainte Anne aboriginals could mimic the human settlers so perfectly that they killed them and took their places . . .
This month’s Tough Travelling picks were brought to you by T. O. Munro, Laura M. Hughes, J. P. Ashman, Alicia Wanstall-Burke, Megan Haskell, Dorian Hart, Jonathan Thornton, Mihir Wanchoo, James Latimer and T. Eric Bakutis.
Next month we’ll be hunting for APPRENTICES.
Apprentices are people who are training for a trade or skill, which means they are usually quite young and bad at what they do. Most of the time they are like nurses during an operation, being there only to hand the master his toold. They seem to have to do this for a good many years before they get to do anything more interesting, and it is therefore not surprising that some of them get restless and either try to do the interesting stuff themselves or simply run away. The Rules state that if an Apprentice tries to do the interesting stuff on their own it will blow up in their face. If they run away, they will learn all sorts of things very quickly and also probably prove to be the MISSING HEIR to a Kingdom.
– Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland