I had high hopes for the third book in this series. After all, it was from the perspective of the mysterious and supremely gifted, Saladin van Schalkwyk. How do you get a name like that? You apparently have an Arab mother and an Afrikaner father ( though his ethnic heritage matters far less than his genetic heritage.) Mal, the protagonist of the previous book, called him Chalky. I'm going to call him Saladin out of respect for the character's own preference.
I received a digital galley of this book in advance of publication from the author in return for this honest review.
The focus of this book wasn't on science like Wolf, the previous novel. Science was in the background rather than the foreground, but that was enough for me to consider it science fiction. We learn that some characters were genetically modified as part of a series of experiments. There was no indication of fantasy underpinnings for this series. When Saladin went looking for his origins, he didn't search for grimoires that might contain some magical spell that summoned him into existence. He searched for laboratory records that would confirm his theory about how he came to have such unique abilities.
The previous protagonists came from a family of Randoms who could change into any animal that they saw around the time of the full moon. Saladin goes beyond them. He doesn't have any of the limitations of Randoms. That's why I refer to him as Random 2.0 He's the next step in the evolution of shapechangers.
Due to human fear and prejudice Saladin's existence had been buried in secrecy. Saladin also became accustomed to a covert lifestyle when he became a hacker at a young age. Yet his success as a hacker made Saladin arrogant and clouded his judgment. He believed at that stage of his life that there was nothing he couldn't do, and that there wouldn't be any serious consequences to his actions. He learned otherwise. I was actually annoyed with Saladin in his arrogant phase. I perceive his character arc to that point as going from a sympathetic runaway child who triumphed over abuse and neglect to a thoughtless adolescent who was misusing his abilities. He thought he was clever, but his inability to see further than short-term repercussions made him seem very oblivious.
I was also bothered by a structural problem in this book. I know I've said before that I don't like info dumps in novels. I may not have said it recently, so it bears repeating. I REALLY DON'T LIKE INFO DUMPS! Some authors and readers appear to think that they are unavoidable in some circumstances. They are never unavoidable. The use of info dumps is always a choice and I consider it a bad one. Perhaps Alma Alexander thought they would be consistent with Saladin's profession. He is a seeker of information therefore the reader should see search results. Yet an important purpose of fiction is storytelling. Info dumps disrupt the plot and destroy its pacing. I believe that they should be avoided at all costs. Readers should be given information gradually on a need to know basis. If the reader doesn't need to know it at that juncture, then insert it later when that piece of information is necessary. Many of the facts that appear in info dumps never come into play during the course of the narrative. This means that the reader doesn't need them at all.
Another aspect of this book that I found tedious was the repetition of the entire plot of Wolf from Saladin's perspective. There was repetition of the events of Random from Mal's perspective in Wolf, but I didn't find that so problematic. I felt that Mal's experiences were sufficiently different from those of his sister that they made a real contribution to my understanding of those events. I gained insight into Mal's character. I didn't feel that way about Saladin's recounting of what happened in Wolf. Perhaps this was because I'd just read Wolf, and definitely didn't need a refresher course.
For this reason, I wouldn't advise readers to save the Were novels until the series is complete so that they can be read one after another. The repetition element makes them more suitable to be read with a significant interval between them.
On the other hand, it seems to me that Random was the strongest that I've read in the Were series, and that each successive novel has had less to offer me. Because I thought so highly of Random I wanted to like them more.
What I found most engaging about Shifter was the opening dealing with Saladin's difficult childhood and the final section of Saladin's story. Between those dramatic high points, I didn't feel as invested in the book.