One of the more interesting panels I went to at Readercon 23 this past July was one on protagonist agency. At this remove from the convention, I don’t remember specifically what was talked about by the (intelligent and good-looking) panelists, but it did spur me really think about a book I reviewed earlier this year for RT Book Reviews. That book is Sharon Shinn’s The Shape of Desire and it was one I really struggled with while reading, for a number of reasons.
It’s a huge departure from her other work; instead of secondary world fantasy, it’s set in an analogue to our own world and is less focused on the fantastic elements than it is on the romantic ones. Her books almost always have romances in them, but often not as central as it is in this one. Note: I have absolutely no issue with romances being centered in fantasy novels over the fantastic elements; I think I may be the only SF reader in the world who really loved Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series for just that reason. Romance is awesome.
The point of view that Shinn uses is really unusual as well: it’s first person present. First person is one thing, making it present tense takes it to a whole different level. It’s a really intimate mode of telling a story. You’re right there in the protagonist’s head, experiencing everything as they do–and you only know what they know, although a really great author will put things in front of the protagonist that they don’t recognize as important but that the reader does (Frederik Pohl did this in his most recent book, All the Lives He Lead, which was a highlight of a novel I otherwise found to be disappointing). It’s a damned hard thing to pull off, and Shinn really does it so well in The Shape of Desire.
The story, roughly, is about what it’s like to be in a relationship with a paranormal creature–in this case, a werewolf. Maria’s been dating Dante for a number of years and her entire life is built around that relationship. Dante is spending more and more time in wolf form and it makes Maria really sad and mopey (and a bit pathetic). There’s a secondary plot with some of Maria’s co-workers that shows the reader that Maria isn’t a complete wet noodle which, for me, was very frustrating because it showed that she was capable of standing up for other people and just not herself. And then people start dying in what appear to be animal attacks in one of the areas Maria knows that Dante frequents and she really ends up not having a choice about having a backbone or not.
So since Maria’s raison d’être for most of the book is basically to be there for Dante when he’s in human form. And she’s not really protagging and being active in her own story for most of the book, she’s just sort of hanging around waiting for him. And, you know, that’s probably a pretty realistic description of what it would be like to be the human partner in a paranormal relationship (Shinn’s werewolves are the hereditary kind so there’s no chance of Maria becoming paranormal herself). And man, it’s tedious—the mooning about for Dante just isn’t fun to read; until Maria uses her backbone for herself, the most interesting things going on in the book are in the secondary plot.
And yet—Shinn is such a great writer that I just felt pulled along despite myself and I had a hell of a time putting the book down. I’ve been thinking about this book off and on for most of a year by now and I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the sort of book which is a lot better in retrospect because of the technical excellence of it.
Writing a protagonist who just isn’t very active on their own is extremely hard. There’s another recent book, Yves Meynard’s Chrysanthe, which also has an inactive protagonist and it doesn’t work nearly as well. There’s a lot of stuff (for lack of a better word) going on and it’s hard to really care about the heroine in the midst of all the elaborate set pieces that Meynard constructed around her. There’s something interesting there, but the execution was flawed in a way that made it nearly impossible to see or appreciate. Alas.
Of course, sometimes authors have characters who will take over any story they’re in, even if it not about them. Like Miles Vorkosigan, safely sent offstage in the upcoming Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance so Ivan can protag. And Ivan’s another one of those protagonists who just isn’t all that into protagging. And neither is Tej. It’s a pretty problem and watching Bujold write her way around it is a delight.
There’s a sequel to The Shape of Desire coming out in November. It’s called Still Life with Shape-Shifter and it looks like it’s dealing with a completely different set of characters but with some similar issues. I’m really looking forward to reading it to see what Shinn does next—I wonder if it’ll be told from the same point of view or if she’ll move to one which makes it easier for the reader to distance themselves from the protagonist?
Note: All books mentioned in this post, with the exception of Still Life with Shape-Shifter, were received at no charge from the publisher(s) and subsequently reviewed in RT Book Reviews.