The Song

The Sword

The Shifting Plains
by Jean Johnson
(Berkley, $15.00, PG-13)† ISBN 978-042-523086-2
The Shifting Plains has, hands down, the worst cover Iíve seen on a romance in years.† I know thatís not a great way to start a review, but what was Berkley thinking?† The novel is about a reserved woman with paranormal abilities who doesnít trust men.† So why would the cover feature a woman who looks like a stripper showing off her latest set of boobs? Itís just awful, as though it was designed to pull in male readers whose tastes usually run to Penthouse or Maxim.

Cover rant aside, Jean Johnson opens what I suppose is her next series of books with an intriguing new world. Tava Ell Var is a young woman with unusual abilities: sheís a shapeshifter.† Her mother died when she was a child, and her adoptive father Ė the only family she has ever known Ė was recently murdered by a gang of bandits.† While on the trail of the bandits, Tava is surprised by a band of shape-shifting warriors, known as Shifterai, from the Shifting Plains.† They shift into various animal forms and dispatch the bandits, but not before Tava is spied shifting into her own various forms to deal with one of the bandits herself.

The Shifterai leader, Koran Sin Siin, locates Tava in a nearby village where she is about to be forced into servitude.† Koran keeps quiet about his knowledge of Tavaís abilities, and convinces her to accompany his band to the Plains, along with the wagonloads of goods he has managed to barter away from the village elders on her behalf.† Unwelcome in the village and not knowing where to turn, Tava agrees to go with Koran and live on the Plains on a trial basis.

Tava has good reason to fear the Shifterai.† Her mother was brutalized at the hands of a Shifterai band, and Tava herself is a product of that brutality.† Koranís assurances that true Shifterai donít act that way, and in fact they revere their women, are only partly successful.† Tava will need to see for herself, and decide how much she can trust the attractive and enigmatic Koran.

Thatís about it for the story, sweet though it is.† Koran and Tava are attracted to each other, and there is little standing in their way.† Oh, a jealous rival is thrown into the story, but sheís mostly window dressing.† To fill out the pages, the author spends a lot of time on her world-building.† And this is the weakness of the story.† The retelling of a Shifterai legend takes over a dozen pages.† Another six or so pages are devoted to a description of how the Shifterai mend their tents.† A priestess takes numerous pages to instruct Tava in the ways of Shifterai women.† Meanwhile, the story was stuck in neutral.

World-building is necessary, to be sure, but these long passages were a bit much and just made my mind wander.† It would be different if they pushed the plot forward, but Tava learning how to felt wool to patch a tent didnít have anything to do with the rest of the story.† Hints of possible villains faded away, and the issue of the rogue clan that brutalizes women isnít resolved.† Maybe thatís for future installments.

The romance between Koran and Tava was quite enjoyable, and the author took an unexpected path when dealing with sex.† It was inventive, to say the least.† I enjoyed both characters; it was easy to see why theyíd be a good fit for each other.†

The Shifting Plains feels like a setup book for a series to come: lots of backstory with a light romance thrown in to satisfy the reader.† Now that the Shifterai world has been introduced, hopefully Jean Johnson will put more story into her next book. (And insist on a better cover.)† This one, while enjoyable, might be best borrowed from the library.†

--Cathy Sova

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