My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I really wish I could’ve liked Heather Ostler’s “The Shapeshifter’s Secret” more than I did, but I was more frustrated as I read it than anything else. It had some interesting moments, I’ll admit as I went along in the story, but it was clear after a certain point where the story would go. I did not like the mechanical dialogue, unidentifiable characters, and cliched progression. Seriously, how many YA paranormal novels will tackle this same troupe of a girl coming into a strange new power, being caught in a love triangle and have a jealousy streak whenever a girl is around a boy she likes, being caught in a power struggle and thus acting upon decisions that are obviously wrong and will result in bad things, and then ultimately end up as a instalove propogator which has very little character emotional intimacy? I’ve seen one too many of these kind of stories in the past few years that have a promising idea, but cede to the familiar and have a hard time standing out for themselves. Unless you really don’t mind the cliches and can take a simple predictable story for what it is, it’s difficult to like.
The story focuses on the perspective of Julia, a teenage girl who’s odd experiences start with the arrival of a new boy (Caleb) at her school. When I first saw this story beginning, I thought “Oh no, I think I know where this might be going,” but I decided to swallow my qualms and follow through with it. The idea of the overarching story is a promising one, about a young woman who discovers she’s a shapeshifter and undergoes a series of transformations and weird experiences in the mix of that, until the people around her (notably her father) start telling her the truth about who she is. And the new boy isn’t that far from being “in the know” about Julia’s ability.
Julia, after it’s noted her abilities are compromising her ability to live in a normal environment, is relocated to her true home, a castle school where other paranormal shapeshifters – werecats, water nymphs, etc – are located. There, it’s revealed that she’s of a specially considered lineage and subject to a power struggle which came between her father and her lost mother (who, I’ll admit, there was an interesting story bit surrounding her that I found interesting). But when the truth about her family history is revealed, Julia realizes that she’s up against more than she bargained for, and also caught between her affections for two boys who are a part of the school’s environment and militant system.
Let me start off with one primary problem right off the bat – the worldbuilding in this is very, very loose. It isn’t developed much beyond a boarding school type environment in a castle where the students have to learn to cope with their particular paranormal traits. This would be very interesting if Ostler had decided to develop it with a measure of intimacy, but alas, it isn’t fully realized. Julia herself is considered among the descendants of an important, but controversial lineage, but it was fairly predictable as to whom the antagonists would be (with one exception, though once that player came along to a certain point, it was fairly obvious what their role would be).
That leads to another problem: the characterization. The characterization in this book is fairly lifeless and dull. I couldn’t connect very well to any of the characters in this novel. Especially not Julia, whose perspective is so harried and willing to jump into obvious danger that it made me groan a fair number of times as I was reading along. I understand that there are protagonists that are unlikable and may do unlikable/out of the ordinary things, but I honestly could not understand Julia’s rationale at all. Wanting to meet her mother after learning from her father that she tried to kill Julia as a child? Seriously? And how about one of the “pranks” she pulls on love interest Caleb with his “current” girlfriend? Julia actually uses the name of a boy she definitely doesn’t crush on (and actually asked one of her friends out) to elicit a reaction from Caleb’s current girlfriend. Julia later tries to laugh it off in front of Caleb as a joke, but it seriously wasn’t funny.
And don’t get me started on the romance, or lack thereof. There’s barely any developed in this novel to speak of. What little there is proves fairly insufferable as the main character herself. A lot of jealousy streaks, instalove connections and a serious dearth of development among any of the love interests involved made it very hard to connect to this novel.
Don’t get me wrong, I love reading YA paranormal novels, and particularly novels about shapeshifters, and I don’t mind a few cliches peppered into a story as long as the story can stand alone and prove engaging in its own right with respect to characterization, plot, among other elements. But Ostler’s “The Shapeshifter’s Secret” holds no true secrets at all, and pretty much – from the get-go – doesn’t deliver on the promise it makes in the blurb: it’s not funny, it’s not romantic, and it certainly doesn’t have people guessing until the last page – it’s fairly predictable after a certain point with bland characters and a villain who really doesn’t have a solid motivation that stands out from the predictable.
Quite a disappointing read.
Overall score: 1/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Cedar Fort.