The Shaper Exiles: Garden of the Shaped by Shiela Finch
Human scientists, banished from earth for genetic experimentation, set up shop on an uninhabited planet. Having defeated mortality, they set out to test some of their grandest theories about human development and psychology by designing three unique races.
(The scientists don’t extend this gift of immortality to their creations, of course.)
The Ganu are a salt-of-the-earth type. They work hard, they hold a quiet dignity, and their culture is rich but muted.
The Rhodarus are bloodthirsty tribesmen. They, uh, kill hard, they like killing, and their culture revolves around killing. (Full disclosure, we don’t really get to meet them, but this was still my takeaway.)
The Lianu are decadent and shallow. Shapeshifters, they while away the days playing and performing with no thought to practical matters.
These three races live on a small-ish world in close-ish proximity to each other. And while they tumble through the natural friction that’s bound to exist between them, elsewhere the human scientists are watching and taking notes.
I was engaged in The Shaper Exile: The Garden of the Shaped almost immediately. The writing isn’t beautiful, but it’s effective, and from the first page where we meet the recently-exiled human scientists waxing about their dreams for the future, it’s clear that this is going to a plot-driven book. Plot driven books don’t rely on beautiful turns of phrases to impress, so we good.
Though the human scientists kick off the book, we only occasionally follow them. Due to science so far evolved it’s practically magic, they exist in an ethereal and ephemeral world where they distantly watch the flow of their creations like a child might watch ants in an ant-farm.
Sheila Finch does a great job with these scenes. Few of the original scientists remain (for reasons that are made clear in the book), and those that do are strangely mystical. They rely on talismans to determine what to do. They treat their previous leader as if he were a god. Part of this might come from the fact their immortality doesn’t truly defeat the effect time has on the scientists. While they don’t physically age, they struggle to remember why they started genetic experimentation, and even go back on their original oath not to meddle in the affairs of their creations.
One of these creations is Sivell, a young Lianu about to take the throne—if she can shapeshift well enough to pass the test. Unlike most Lianu, she finds changing her shape difficult, and her grandmother calls to the scientists (whom they think are wizards) to help her better learn her people’s skill.
Though the plot continues from here (inevitably, there’s a race war brewing), for the first half to two-thirds of the book, the plot revolves around the Venn meddling in the affairs of their creations (for good or for ill depending on which Venn you ask), and Sivell (and the Lianu and Ganu around her) puzzling out why their world and their races are the way they are.
It might not sound like much of a plot, but I enjoyed it. Their questions were all-too human, ranging from the simple “why’s” to the much more complicated “why’s.” Theological, existential, and philosophical questions are baked into the fabric of the book. The plot not moving at a rapid pace doesn’t matter in the slightest.
So I was reading along, happy and invested, until all of a sudden I found myself completely not invested. Somewhat baffled that this book I had really enjoyed took a turn without it being apparent, I doubled back.
The change was subtle, but significant: about two-thirds of the way through the book, most of the questions are answered, most of the plot points are teased apart, and the book shifts (like the Lianu, get it?) into being a character-driven book.
Except it doesn’t work. Sivell’s fine as a means of delivering a plot, but she’s not particularly loveable or relatable. I mean, I don’t want bad things to happen to her, but unless there’s some sort of compelling question introduced beforehand, I’m also not going to watch her go grocery shopping.
The Garden of the Shaped ends with an even more serious promise of a race war, except it lacks nuance. It feels more like the beginning of a story (and I’ve read stories that started on this premise) than an ending/teaser for book two. The only hook to keep us reading is the fear of how war will impact the world we’ve been introduced to. And, honestly, I don’t really care.
There are several reasons why. I mean, it’s pretty normal for a plot-centered book to not make you fall in love with its characters. I think the very nature of this plot, though, makes it harder to invest in the characters/world because The Garden of the Shaped is a lesson in the stupidity and cluelessness of white people. Okay, because it was written in the 1980s the privileged race has to be dark-skinned and the more downtrodden race has to be, essentially, Aryan, but this is still clearly a lesson in wypipo.
The Lianu are every privileged group that oppresses a group of lesser means:
They think the Ganu are uncultured, boorish, and unimaginative, which only helps justify why the Lianu force them into roles of hard or mindless labor.
They mock the Ganu in many ways, but most notably by shapeshifting into the form of a Ganu and putting on slapstick comedies about how oafish and clumsy they are. Of course, they defend this by saying that the Ganu really are oafish and clumsy. It’s not mean if it’s true.
While the Lianu do pay the Ganu for their work, it seems as if they don’t pay entirely fair rates, and use the fact that they pay as a shield to hide behind should any accusations of oppression crop up. (“How can we oppress you if you’re free? Just leave if you don’t want to do the work.”)
I could go on, but you get the point. Now, I don’t mind that the Lianu are this way—it appears Finch purposefully set the story up to poke at the Lianu’s racist assumptions and beliefs. I love that (way to clearly call racist bullshit out as racist, Finch!), but it makes it hard to love the Lianu, which is why when things turn character-focused, my attention waned.
This, I think, is the inherent difficulty in writing a plot-driven book. If the ending doesn’t feel appropriate to the plot that the reader was invested in, it can feel as if the promise of the book wasn’t fulfilled.
I think a character-driven book, on the other hand, is easier in this regard. The ending should be good, but if the reader feels it goes completely off the rails (*couch* Islands *cough*), as long as that off-the-rails ending doesn’t so subvert the characters that the reader no longer feels invested in them, the book still lives up to its promise.
I’d vote a 2.5 if I could because so much of the book felt like 4-star material, but the fact that I’m not continuing the series pulls it down to a 2, which leaves me feeling icky, but it is what it is.
Cover art by Steve and Paul Youlle.