Rating: 3.25 stars
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In the shapeshifter village Eladir, all are shapeshifters regardless of gender. But how they become shapeshifters differs dramatically for the boys. Unlike the girls, who are able to shift almost from birth with their animal already tattooed on their bodies, the boys have to wait until their 18th birthday or so when their fangs first drop and then must go through The Choosing in order to find out what animal they are, have the ability to shift, and find a mate. And what Jerath fears the most, at 19, is that his fangs will never drop and he will never have an animal spirit of his own, let alone find someone to mate with. On top of his insecurity about his lack of fangs is the fact that Jerath is attracted only to boys, not girls, and the ritual through which he is chosen depends upon his sexual union with a girl, something Jerath is not sure he can do.
The Choosing must only be performed at a full moon, which is still some time away, so Jerath and his best friend Serim spend their time running in the woods and discussing their hopes for the future. On just such an afternoon, their village is attacked by slave raiders who capture all the boys still unmarked, as well as others. Fearful and in need of help, Jerath and Serim head out cross country to the one place they hope will help them, a village and people known to them only through stories. Along the way, they meet Meren, a handsome warrior who is returning to the very village they seek. The attraction between Meren and Jerath is immediate and deep. But Meren is not a shapeshifter and his feelings towards sexual encounters is far more relaxed than the virginal Jerath’s. With the full moon fast approaching, it is imperative that the prisoners be rescued or they will lose not only their freedom, but the ability to shift forever. Jerath needs Meren’s help, but his own shifting moods and emotions are not helping matters, making the search harder, as does the increasing depth of their attraction towards each other. As the obstacles in their path mount up against them, will Jerath be able to save the prisoners and keep his heart from breaking? Or will all be lost before the next full moon?
The Choosing by Annabelle Jacobs gave me a myriad of emotions and thoughts about this book. The author has painted a story that has a broad canvas with a far reaching plot that covers religion, coming of age, and differing cultures. Perhaps too large a canvas. Jacobs has given us a geographical universe bound together by a Goddess and the limitations of population upon a singular habitat. There are several villages surrounded by the Arachia Mountains whose four peaks protect the valley and the villages from being attacked “from the rear.” The villages are surrounded by woods as well, which are being cut down to make room for more families as each village contains three to four hundred people. The villages are governed by the laws of the Goddess of the Woods. Here is an excerpt that will explain it in village lore:
He listens to Serim sigh before she begins to recite the oldest of the forest laws. “When the moon is full, each and every boy who is of age shall choose a willing female. If the boy is deemed worthy, together they will consummate their union and invoke the spirits of the forest to bless the boy with their magic. Only then will his animal form be revealed.” The people of Eladir can shift their human form into that of one of the sacred beasts of legend: the lynx, tiger, black panther, and jaguar. These animals used to roam the forest when there were no villages here, so the village elders tell. It was by the Goddess’s goodwill that people were allowed to settle in the forest, and in return the villagers accepted her magical gift—the power to shift—and helped protect her animals whenever they were in danger.
By now some of the oddities in her world building may be popping up at you. A confined habitat ruled by one Goddess that has given her people the ability to shift into animals to help protect her other animals and the woods. The animals chosen just happen to be four large cat species that used to roam the woods the people now inhabit. Hmmm, so what happened to those original cat populations that were there before the people? And would you really chose large predators to protect deer, fish, and bunnies? Perhaps not in my universe, but it definitely happens within Jacobs’ world building.
Now add to that the fact that the villagers are growing in families. What happens to a habitat that becomes overcrowded? I think a Woods Goddess might have a problem with that. And she did and she took care of it. By banishing another whole village from the woods and mountains because of overhunting. That’s where Meren’s people come in. But nowhere it is addressed that Jerath’s villagers are rapidly deforesting said woods because of their own exploding populations, so the world building starts to break down even further. I also wonder about a Goddess that has a finite range of influence because the raiders definitely aren’t Goddess worshiping people. Now I have many, many more questions, observations about the incongruities in this author’s world building, but by now there are so many piling up that its just not necessary. It’s kind of neat, but all the elements just don’t add up to one cohesive universe in which to place her story.
The Choosing is Jacobs’ take on the ritualized coming of age in fantasy stories. I liked the fact that each gender has its own path with the females born with fangs and the ability to shift, their animal already identified by marks, cat figures on their skin (really cool birthmarks, not tattoos, which are artificial). Gender specific characteristics do occur in nature and I liked that she picked up on that. Then for some reason, the Goddess later decides the men should have the ability to shift as well and gifts them with the chance to choose a cat and shift through a ritual called The Choosing. It includes male/female sex that brings the Goddess, a real presence, into the situation and lets her bless the joining. But Jerath just happens to be gay and doesn’t want any m/f joining and doesn’t think he can apply himself, as it were, to the situation. No worries. It turns out that when the time comes, he does too and the Goddess smiles on him.
And that large part of the story may leave some folks frowning and wanting to leave this story behind. Because the m/f joining and the subsequent sex does take up most of the first part of the story. Jacobs handles it by saying it gives Jerath and his friend a deeper connection to each other (well, yes) while leaving them free to find their mates, but I think some readers looking for primarily a m/m romance will be gone by that time. Honestly, I felt this aspect of the book could have been made smaller and the romance between Jerath and Meren enlarged without hurting the story, but that is just my opinion.
The rest of the book is the hunt for the villagers taken by the raiders and the will they, won’t they romance of Jerath and Meren. I still don’t feel that the author gave us a good explanation as to how a village of over three hundred cat shifters was taken by surprise by a smaller group of raiders. Or if it was a larger group of raiders, it would have to have been a city’s worth and they would have sounded like elephants. Surely the Goddress would have let them know danger was coming? After all didn’t she create them to help protect her woods and creatures? Wouldn’t all those birds have given flight and sounded alarm? How about all those cat senses? The more I think about it, the more holes appear in the plot and I just have to leave it alone.
So I think I will leave this review here. The Choosing has some inventive elements and some nice characterizations in a story that takes 210 pages to tell and for me those pages did not go by swiftly. If you like your stories cohesive and powerful, I’m not sure this is for you. But if you are a fan of fantasy and shifters and love them all, pick this up and add one more cat shifter universe to your collection.
Cover art by Brooke Albrecht is just stunning. I so wished the story had lived up to the promise of the cover.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.