Shapeshifters are a big thing with me – in keeping with my general fascination for looking out from other shapes and faces is the idea of being transformed, willingly or not, from human to Other and back. Here are some of my absolute favourites from the canon and, in keeping with my general malleability, most of them have some runners up in the category.
The People Who Can: Power Of Three by Diana Wynne Jones
A lesser known work of hers but still my favourite: an iron-age people are at war with people from beneath the lake, shown as cold, inhuman and most of all shapechangers, a weapon they put to great effect against our valiant, put-upon heroes… except that precisely what is going on, who is in the right, and indeed the entire context of both cultures against the wider world is never quite as it seems. Just as with some of the characters, the entire plot shifts its shape as the narrative progresses, and goes to some truly unexpected places.
The Cloak of Feathers: mythic shapeshifting in The Winter Of The World by Michael Scott Rohan
A classic that draws both from myth and palaeontology. A civilization of the Ice Age faces the goddess of winter who seeks to freeze them off the map. The hero, Elof, is a mage-smith, pitting the fires of his forge against the cold. One of the key magical tools in the book is a cloak of feathers that transforms the wearer into a bird, a literary borrowing of a magical tradition that goes back to prehistory, appearing in myths all over the world. Scott’s hero’s cunning takes such objects and turns them to his own use, sometimes with tragic consequences. The feeling of this series – deep myth meeting prehistorical truth – gave a lot to the deep time of Echoes Of The Fall.
No fixed abode: Doppelgangers in D&D
The curious mis-spelling of the original German shows we’re well into roleplaying game territory. Doppelgangers have been part of the game since its early days. Featureless humanoids who can take on any shape and read minds to swot up on the life of their victim, the thing about them is that they aren’t actually evil, by D&D’s alignment system, but only ‘neutral’. To make them evil would be the easy route, yet the game designers held back and left their true motives quite open – maybe just looking for a comfortable life, or an interesting one, or any of countless possibilities. And that one decision made them vastly more interesting than simply painting them as stock bad guys.
A feel for the beast: The Last Unicorn and Lila The Werewolf by Peter S. Beagle
My own writing is full of animals, whether spiders and insects, the many shapes of Echoes Of The Fall or even the cyborg bioforms of Dogs Of War. I share this love with Beagle, who is one of fantasy fiction’s great masters of the language, a truly poetic writer. He also plays a great deal with transformations, physical and otherwise. The titular unicorn is transformed to a human shape and there is a great deal in the narrative about what is gained and lost by such a change. Meanwhile in the short work Lila, a modern-day narrator finds out his girlfriend is a werewolf, and that it’s less trouble than her over-protective mother. Everything Beagle writes is a joy and these two particularly so.
A very different type of shape-changer is where, rather than humans becoming something else, some very inhuman force decants itself into a lesser form to interact with us. Lagoon is a great modern classic of SF dealing with an alien visitation to Nigeria, where the entity, godlike in scale, attempts to interact with the humans by making itself human, save that you can’t really contain that kind of power. In Lagoon this goes one way based on the motives of the alien force, but other possible and far less fortuitous paths are shown by Vandermeer’s Annihilation or John Carpenter’s film The Thing, itself a masterpiece of transformation and shape-changing in the nastiest and most visceral way.
(cover art by Joey Hi-fi)
The Hyena And The Hawk, the finale to the Echoes Of The Fall trilogy, is out now from Tor UK.