Shapeshifters can turn into perfect copies of people – any person – with just one touch. And that doesn’t just mean appearance, that means their memories and skills as well. One touch and they can become them any time. After one shapeshifter nearly bankrupt a city, the US military quickly intervened under a secret executive order and all shaepshifters are found and imprisoned – raised, trained and by the army in brutal surroundings. Evading them is a crime, free shapeshifters are hunted.
Jace has been in the army prison since she was 5 years old. It was hard, it was brutal – and she is both of those things. She also wants to be free… which means earning her freedom
Gray ran, he’s spent his whole life on the run, but he’s finally been noticed and hunted. Gray’s freedom may be the price of Jace finally escaping.
This world is an interesting wrong, bringing in shapeshifting as a power and mixing it with elements of mind reading to make a truly original and rather frightening story. Beings who can read the minds and memories of those they have turned into – the threat they represent is incredible which in turn leads to them being brutally oppressed and denied anything resembling rights as human beings – this widescale kidnapping and holding of them works and remains realistic in the story simply because they never forget how much of a threat they are – we are constantly reminded in subtle ways just how dangerous a shapeshifter is.
I think the world building also works because there’s a limit on anything else out there. Gray and his sister have a form of telepathy that suggests maybe there is more out there, but the author has resisted the temptation to crowd the story. We have one supernatural, we have the world adjusted to control and use this supernatural. This is their stories – we don’t need other psychics, weremoose, and-whatever-monster-we’re-calling-fae-this-week.
This tight focus works to keep the story moving – and makes it a very good first book. We get the characters introduced, motivated and developed in excellent but not long winded detail. Everything is focused on them and their journey so you really get to know these people without distraction. The world isn’t overly complicated nor is the story confused or twisted – it’s pretty focused. The military controls all shapeshifters (to stop them running amok in uncontrolled ways and to use them to run amok the way they want to) in, basically, a prison. Jace can earn her freedom by serving her masters – and that serice means bringing in shapeshifters who have managed to dodge the system; like Gray.
It’s not a complex or twisted story (though there are elements of one to come in future books). But it’s clear lines let us focus on the characters, let them explore this (again, not overly complicated) world and establish everything perfectly
And this is ideal because I love the protagonist, Jace and Gray. Starting with Jace: ok, I would expect someone raised in a government facility to be rather more brainwashed than she was, but that’s clearly not been the way she was raised and there’s some quasi explanation for it. The main reason I like her is that she has all of the usual excuse we have for a complete arsehole of a character – the tragic past, being completely friendless, being relentlessly bullied and constantly having to fight for her place – yet she isn’t that arsehole. She’s hard. She’s harsh. She’s unforgiving and uncompromising. She has a control streak 10 miles wide But she’s fair within her own rules, she’s willing to fight for other people as much as for herself. She has a strong sense of duty even if she doesn’t like or isn’t particularly nice to the people she feels dutiful towards (or if they don’t like her either). She has a short temper, but it doesn’t reach the comical levels we see so often in the genre with protagonists lashing out like berserkers at the slightest thing. And she’s selfish – or, rather, she’s focused on her own goal. She wants to get out, she wants to escape the prison she has lived in all her life – and if that means she has to work for an organisation she loathes and even hurt someone else in the process – well, needs much. In fact, she’s not selfish – but she isn’t a martyr. And that doesn’t make her a bad person – she does what she has to within the limits of her terrible situation
In short, Jace is a very interesting character, she has multiple levels, she has flaws, she has skills, she’s good without being saintly, capable without being perfect, reasonable without being a machine and emotional without being out of control. I like her. I’m invested in her, her story and I want to see her win
I like her more than I like Gray since he doesn’t have such a distinct voice to me. But I think that’s the point. Gray, for all his powers and his odd situation, is a fairly generic teenaged boy, though with a very strong streak of goodness. He’s very real, very human and not, on the whole, all that special. He craves normality – but when he has it he has no illusions about how wonderful it is. He tries to do good and has some really interesting conflicts both over the things he has to do to survive on the run as well as the good he can do with his powers all further complicated with his guilt over his sister.
Both these characters manage to hit a perfect balance – because even while they’re in opposition, I support them both and really want them both to win – I’m signed on for both their stories.
What I also like is that both of these characters aren’t unusually special. Yes, Jace is very tough and very skilled – but her she’s not exactly more skilled than her fellow operatives, she’s skilled in different areas. Even with her the leader, they’re her peers not her inferiors – there’s no suggestion that Gray or Jace are super-duper-special compared to other shapeshifters. I like protagonists who are great because of their choices and actions – not because they are the specialists special ones of extra specialness who are special.
These characters, their relationships and developments are all showcased against a plot and world that is exciting and interesting without being overly complex and unnecessary elaborate. It’s the very essence of less-is-more and creates an extremely strong foundation on which a whole series can be built. This is also helped by clear, strong writing that keeps the pacing moving and the book always pushing forwards without being bogged down or too linear.
Diversitywise, two of Jace’s team are POC – Carmen is east-Asian and Viraj is south Asian. Gray also spends a lot of time with several Latino characters including his love interest. They’re not stereotyped, they’re not minor characters and play important roles in the plot. Are they super developed? No, but then, short of Jace and Gray (and, to a lesser extent, Gray’s sister) no-one is. We also have a number of capable female characters – from the obvious Jace but also Carmen: strong, capable second ready to show everyone who is boss without all of Jace’s spikiness and Nia, Gray’s sister who has fought so long to keep him free and Maria, loyal and determined academic love interest of Gray’s. Unfortunately, there are no LGBT characters
The first chapter is done. I love these characters, I like the world, the potential meter is off the charts – bring on book 2!