Review: The 'Shapeshifter' series, by Ali Sparkes
How wonderful this modern world is! Up to ten years ago, British books were generally unobtainable by North American readers. Thanks to Amazon.com’s startup of Amazon.co.uk in late 1998, British books are now available by just a click of the computer mouse.
The five volumes of The Shapeshifter series are a smooth blend of Harry Potter, X-Men, and Animorphs themes. Eleven-year-old Dax (Daxesh Robert) Jones is a schoolboy in Dorset, near the New Forest in Southern England. His father works on an oil rig in the North Sea and is gone for months at a time. His stepmother hates him, ignoring Dax except to make him do hard chores. One hot summer weekend Dax is ordered to weed the garden while she is shopping. Dax becomes accidentally locked inside the small, airless garden shed, and when a strong solvent spills he is in danger of being asphyxiated.
“The Shapeshifter: Finding the Fox” – May 2006, paperback £5.99 (328 [+ 1] pages).
“The Shapeshifter: Running the Risk” – January 2007, paperback £5.99 (363 [+ 1] pages).
“The Shapeshifter: Going to Ground” – May 2007, paperback £5.99 (346 [+ 1] pages).
“The Shapeshifter: Dowsing the Dead” – August 2007, paperback £5.99 (355 [+ 1] pages).
“The Shapeshifter: Stirring the Storm” – January 2008, paperback £5.99 (401 [+ 1] pages).
Published by Oxford University Press.
Dax felt dizzy and sick. He knew he was going to faint when a sound like taps being turned on to their very fullest swept into his head. His last thought before he fell was that he ought to get his nose out of the gap in the planks at the back of the shed, to get to fresh air. Or he would possibly never wake up again.
He realized that the evil vapour of white spirit inside the shed had gone. Or perhaps it was because he HAD managed to get his face to the gap when he’d fallen. No – he’d done better than that: his whole head was outside the shed. Blimey. How had he managed THAT?
A rustling noise behind him made him jump again – he rose high off his feet, so much higher than Dax the boy. Snapping his head round, he saw immediately, and with some pride, the source of the noise. Brushing against some old paper sacking in the corner was the most glorious, thick, bushy fox tail. Its fur graduated from deep red-brown to pale orange and almost to white at the tip. Dax gazed at it in wonder, waving it gently from the strong muscle at the rump for a full minute.
Dax can hardly believe that he turns into a fox and roams his neighbourhood, exploring his vulpine instincts, for an afternoon. The next week at middle school, when two bullies attack his friend Clive, Dax is so angry that he shifts into a fox to drive them off. He hopes that the source of the “mystery beast” has gone unnoticed, but when he returns home a government agent is talking with his stepmum, offering him a free scholarship to a private school:
‘It may not even have been obvious in normal schooling, but our people know these signs and think it’s vital to sort these special children out from the rest and give them the kind of education which will nurture those unique abilities.’
Dax asked, several times, exactly how it was that the department of education thought he was exceptional, and every time Owen Hind fudged him with the kind of meaningless babble that you hear on TV talk shows, talk of ‘indefinable but exciting potential’ and ‘special qualities’ and ‘exceptional and outstanding hallmarks’ of something or the other. Dax was more and more certain that the man was bluffing, but he smiled and said he’d be delighted to go to the college if his mum and dad thought it was best for him. […] It all seemed highly suspicious to Dax. Whoever heard of an offer of a place in an exclusive school starting – TOMORROW?
Dax learns the next day, in a very dramatic manner, that Owen Hind is fully aware of his unusual ability:
‘About eighteen months ago we started picking up on the first of them. Children doing extraordinary things … like healing with a touch, having startlingly accurate premonitionary dreams, telekinetic powers – being able to shift objects with their mind power – […] And one – just one other – who could turn into an animal. But he didn’t make it. He died before we could bring him in. Dax – I didn’t want to waste any time with you. I COULDN’T lose another shapeshifter.’
The government has identified 109 eleven- or twelve-year-olds that they call COLAs, for Children of Limitless Ability, and has built a special school for them, Tregarren College, on the isolated Cornish coast. It is like Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters crossed with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In addition to openly studying normal subjects under expert teachers, the members of the “Cola Club” have their secret paranormal powers examined by scientists to learn to control them. Frustrating weeks go by before Dax can shift into a fox again, but he hardly cares because he is busy making new friends and luxuriating in the benefits of Tregarren which is like a paradise compared to his home life. He gains three close mates (Gideon Reader, a telekinetic; Lisa Hardman, a clairvoyant; and Mia, a healer) and an enemy (Spook Williams, an illusionist).
But perils develop in paradise. A reporter shows up determined to learn the school’s secret, and she pesters Dax in particular. Dax hopes that he has successfully brushed her off, but he cannot help thinking about her queries as to why the government is being so benevolent towards them. He learns that it is the Ministry of Defence, not Education, that has set up Tregarren College; and that the other shapeshifter who died before being recruited was in fact murdered. Other mysteries are more puzzling; why had all the Cola children’s birth mothers died unexpectedly of natural causes seven years earlier, and why were there strange atmospheric disturbances on the mornings after each of their births?
Each novel builds up to a deadly threat that Dax and his pals must overcome with their individual talents. The series, which covers two years in their lives, is so tightly plotted that it is impossible to summarize the four sequels without giving away spoilers. Concentrating on the anthropomorphic aspect, Dax eventually learns to shift into a fox at will, and his schoolmates and teachers become used to him trotting around the campus in fox form. Soon he is shifting without even noticing it:
She released him and ushered him back to the sofa. Dax sat. It was only as his tail curled around his paws that he realized he’d shifted, without giving it a thought, into a fox. He coughed in embarrassment and shifted quickly back. ‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘Not at all,’ [Mrs. Sartre] murmured, and he noticed Owen smiling sympathetically. ‘It is your instinct. You feel a little threatened.’
By Going to Ground Dax has also learned to shift into a peregrine falcon:
As the earth fell away beneath him and wisps of light early-morning cloud whirled away from him, Dax felt a joy that was unique to this moment. To shake off the lumpy, clumpy weight of human form and shift into the fastest falcon on the planet was every bit as dazzling as it should be. Had he been able to shout he would be bawling YEEEESSSSS!!! with a throat thick with emotion. As it was, he let out a shrill avian cry of Creeee – Creeee – Careet!
The joy was more gentle than for his falcon shift; he was used to it, but he knew the fox was his truest form. He might eventually learn to shapeshift into anything, but his first instinct would always be to the fox. DaxFox trotted through the woodland, scaring a whole new batch of animals.
Although Dax is in human form most of the time, and the other characters are fully human, his shifts into fox or falcon (and a third animal briefly at the climax of the final volume) are often life-saving for himself and his friends in the attacks against the Colas. Most readers will feel that The Shapeshifter is anthropomorphic enough for them. The five paperbacks are worth ordering from Britain.