Shapeshifting: The Ultimate Superhero Power
Every so often one of those internet quizzes goes round Facebook inviting people to pick a superpower, and though I don’t partake (1) my private answer is always “shapeshifting.”
The ability to turn into any animal is pretty much the same as getting a second-hand grab bag of slightly ropy superpowers, after all. You want to fly? Be the mighty eagle! You want special senses? Be a mantis shrimp or a bat (2). Strength? Elephant! Energy blast? Electric Eel (3)! This is something of a rosy view of shapeshifting, admittedly. The most obvious pop culture shapeshifter is the werewolf, which seems a bit of a raw deal. If you’re an old-fashioned pre-the-movies werewolf you’re probably irredeemably evil, a witch or demonic in some way.
If you’re a movie werewolf you’re probably cursed to destroy the thing you love. None of this seems a barrel of laughs. Of course more recently you also have the sexy beefcake werewolves who oppose the seductive brooding vampires. For what it’s worth, my favourite werewolf story is probably Hugh Cook’s The Werewolf and the Wormlord where the hero belongs to a family known to be subject to sporadic werewolf curse, and there’s definitely a werewolf about. Naturally, the hero is suspected, and reasonably enough because he is a werewolf. Unbeknownst to him, so is everyone else, each one hiding the dread secret from the rest.
There are plenty of other beast shapes in the literary canon of course. Beorn in The Hobbit is a bear. Lieber’s Gray Mouser has a wererat paramour, I think, and there is a frankly horrific rat (swarm) shapechanger in Erikson’s Malazan series. There’s a lion in Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, a swan in Rohan’s Winter of the World and le Guin’s Ged takes his other name from the hawk he turns into. And Richard Marsh had a priestess who changed into a beetle in the book of the same name, and I suspect those who’ve read my previous work would have thought I’d go in that direction myself.
I confess I am somewhat known for my insect and spider themes in fiction, and when I decided to write a book about an entire culture of shapeshifters, that was an obvious temptation. However, after writing about insect-themed people, people who were previously spiders and spiders that think like people, I did get worried that I was stuck in a rut. For The Tiger and the Wolf I’ve pushed the envelope and gone for, well, tigers and wolves, obviously. The region most of the action takes place in is a cold northern place of harsh winters and feuding tribes, each one of which has its totem god: wolf, tiger, bear, hawk, coyote and more. Out of this comes Maniye, who is both of the titular animals in one and hunted by her Wolf father, and into this come travellers from a southern land where the gods are very different.
Writing characters who are animals, or at least have animal shapes, is very liberating. I have no ‘curse of the werewolf’ aspect to rob them of their human intellect when they change, and the other major problem werewolves have is the fear of discovery and the torch & pitchfork brigade. When everyone in the culture shifts – when taking an animal shape is an essential part of being a human – there is no stigma. Only the upside is left. As a writer, I really enjoy exploring the possibility of life on animal feet and showing it as an unmitigated Good Thing.
Maniye can run for miles as a wolf and find her way by scent; she can see in the dark and sneak about as a tiger. The only downside is that as the two natures within her mature, they find there’s not room in her human shape for both of them. One of them will have to go . . .
There’s plenty more going on in the book – all the different cultures, their histories and the way they view each other. There’s Hesprec and the Serpent priests, who are strange even by shapeshifter standards; there’s Asmander, a Champion of the south, which title means something very specific as far as shapechanging is concerned; there are the Horse people who adopt orphans from other tribes and give them Horse souls. The shapeshifting permeates every part of the setting, customs, religion, even down to the demons driving Maniye herself. I hope readers enjoy getting to know these characters and their stories, but even more so I'd like to know: if you could shapeshift, which creature would you become? Tell me here: @aptshadow
(1) It’s well known that scammers can determine your bank account details by which superpower you prefer.
(2) If on land, probably a bat.
(3) If on land, just go for the elephant.
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The Tiger and the Wolf is out today in hardback and digital.
Click the image below for an exclusive extract.