The Shifter

The ShifterIn the world of The Shifter, magical healers can draw pain out of victims and into the healer—the injuries are typically healed as well, although only the pain is passed on to the healer. The pain is then transferred into a piece of pynvium, a metal that can store pain. Things made out of this metal contain all the pain stored in it, so pynvium weapons can be very powerful. Simple things like a lock made of pynvium can shock and deter a thief. Nya, our heroine, can heal and draw pain, but instead of pushing it into pynvium, she can only push it into another person. In a variety of ways, this good thing—magical healing—becomes a potentially bad thing. Pain itself, stored in pynvium, becomes a currency.

Nya is a native of Geveg, the small country where The Shifter takes place. The Duke of Baseer recently conquered and occupied Geveg. All of the young characters in the book lost one or both parents in the war. Most of them vividly remember the battles, the riots, the dead. They are outcasts in their own home. The Duke serves as the primary, though distant, villain in the world. He’s greedy, violently conquering other countries to gain their resources. Nya, her younger sister Tali, and their friends struggle to help the people who are being harmed by those more powerful, while trying to avoid being used as pawns and weapons themselves.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to you kid

Moral Ambiguity

This is a major theme throughout the book. Nya is poor, living day to day (her sister is an apprentice healer with the League, so she lives there and is cared for). When we first meet her, she’s trying to steal eggs because she’s starving. The man she’s trying to steal from, who would send her to jail if he could, is definitely portrayed as the bad guy in this scenario.

Nya can cause people intense pain by shifting it from an injured person. While this comes in handy and saves her more than once, she doesn’t feel comfortable with it. She tries to justify it, but she knows she’s making up excuses. She’s offered money to heal injuries by shifting pain to a willing recipient, which she does end up doing on occasion even though she feels awful doing it. Later she learns that shifted pain will eventually kill the recipient if it isn’t properly healed. She starts to wonder how responsible she is for the deaths of those she shifts pain to who then don’t get proper healing within a few days.

This remains ambiguous throughout the book. Are there people who deserve pain and, in some cases, death? Are there causes for which it’s worth compromising your principles? In this way, it’s a very thought-provoking book. The story is told from Nya’s point of view, so we see all of her struggles and the guilt she feels. One of the main themes is that often all you have are a series of bad choices. Unless we’re in that person’s shoes, we shouldn’t judge the choices they made.

Racism, Classism, and Imperialism

There are lots of –isms in this novel. The Baseeri, as the conquerors, are wealthy and powerful. They look down on the “filthy ’Vegs” who are poor and annoying and beneath them. The Geveg in turn pretty much universally hate the Baseeri. There’s not a lot of nuance here—the –isms cause an insurmountable rift.

The Baseeri are considered beautiful with their brown skin and black hair that’s either straight or curly without frizz. The Geveg with their blond or brown hair are the dirty parasites from the point of view of the occupying Baseeri. It’s an interesting twist to have the lighter people be the occupied group, but it also made me a bit uncomfortable that everyone with black hair was considered evil by our main character. The book does do a lot to help the reader identify with the occupied and oppressed group, because we see the poverty, the unfair rules, the way they’re used by the people in power, etc. When refugees from another country the Duke is invading start flooding into Geveg, it only makes things worse. These refugees aren’t exactly welcome since resources are already so short, but Nya also views them with sympathy.

UPDATE: I’m part way through the second book, Blue Fire, and the accepted racism of the first book is being explored as a major topic. While I’d have liked to see a hint of that in the first book, I feel better knowing that Nya’s (and most of the Geveg) racial assumptions are set up in the first book to be challenged in the second.

Violence and Death

The non-stop pacing also tends to mean a lot of non-stop violence, although much of it is minor. Guards are regularly knocked out. People are given enough pain to make them fall back. Even the healing is violent in its way, and the healers scream and moan as they draw in the pain of their patients. Our heroes fight their way through guards, and they cause plenty of injuries along the way including a debilitating kick to the crotch.

There’s a huge ferry accident that results in many injuries and deaths. It’s a pretty intense scene, and its repercussions are felt throughout the rest of the book. Nya tries to help, and she feels alone and terrified yet driven to save those she can.

Nya shifts pain to several willing people. One who sticks with her is a Geveg fisherman who is paid well by a Baseeri family to take the pain of their daughter’s injuries. The fisherman hopes it’s enough to feed his family for a year. Nya knows the pain might be enough to kill him, so when she gets the chance several days later, she tries to bring a proper healer to him. However, he dies before she arrives. She’s pretty shattered by this.

Nya kills two villains in a rather spectacular manner—she flashes huge amounts of pain out of a slab of pynvium which pretty much makes the two bad guys explode. There’s nothing but hair and red mist left. It’s a bit graphic. She does feel bad about causing these deaths, although it felt like the only recourse she had left to save her country. She fully expected to die as well, and she was willing to make that sacrifice for the greater good.


The war has torn apart most families, but it has also pulled the survivors closer together. The losses and memories motivate a lot of the characters. Nya frequently remembers what her Grannyma would have said. She is inspired by the heroic actions of her parents. She sees her mother in the words and actions of Tali. Danello looks out for his younger siblings, and the three older kids all accepted part of their father’s pain to save his life. This nearly killed them, but they’d have done it again to save their da. Nya repeatedly risks a lot to save her sister. Most of those who willingly accept shifted pain do it for their families. Friends can also be like family—some of the characters have no biological family left, but they’re like sibling to Nya and Tali.


Nya prays to the seven Sisters who are saints who supposedly look after Geveg. She notes that they haven’t been doing a particularly good job and she never gets a response from any of them. Nevertheless, she keeps praying. Each of the Sisters is a saint of something, including warriors, courage, etc. “Saints and sinners!” is a common phrase of surprise or dismay.

Gender Roles

Gender roles are pretty well mixed up. Plenty of women fought as warriors against the Duke, and many of them died. Nya’s grannyma used to head the healers, a post now held by a man. However, it’s clear that Nya, Tali, and the other female characters don’t have the physical strength of most of the male characters. That becomes an issue in some fights. And when Nya has to wear a skirt like a proper female League apprentice (she’s in disguise), the skirt gets in the way and almost gets them caught by some guards. All of the Baseeri bad guys are in fact guys.

Sex and Romance and Stuff

Nya is very aware of how cute Danello is, even when she first meets him as he’s trying to stop her from stealing his employer’s eggs. They both seem to feel that there could someday be more between them. Nya also notes when other boys she meets are cute.

In the aftermath of the huge explosion, Nya realizes that her clothes didn’t survive, but she’s too groggy to do much about it. When a man rescues her, he puts his shirt on her. She later realizes that this means he saw her naked and she’s very embarrassed.

Nya sneaks into the League building by convincing a young male guard that she’d snuck out to spend the night with a boy.


Information is also a valuable commodity, and it’s important not to let the wrong people know things about you. This means Nya has been hiding her ability to shift pain from everyone but her family. Because she could be used as a weapon, she really doesn’t want the wrong people to find out about her. Of course, that information starts to spread. Her friend is horrified when Nya finally tells her the truth, but then understands.


The Shifter is a rip-roaring fantasy adventure full of thought-provoking moral ambiguity. It’s probably overt enough to make precocious readers 10 and up really think about it, but I’d also strongly recommend reading it with your kids so you can have some great conversations about tough decisions and living with the consequences. There are no easy answers in this book and Nya does some things that really aren’t very nice, yet she’s easy to identify with. Yes, it’s a female protagonist, but boys who like fast paced fantasy will also enjoy the book.


The Shifter by Janice Hardy
Published in 2009 by Balzar + Bray
First in The Healing Wars series, followed by Blue Fire and Darkfall
Read a personal paperback copy supplied by the author


  1. My older daughter liked this series. It’s well written, every engrossing, and thought provoking. The series also has a satifsying ending. But I wouldn’t call it fun – there’s really never ever a moment for the characters to enjoy themselves. It is definitely all war all the time.

    • ayvalentine says:

      Yes, part way through the third novel and it really has been all war all the time. Barely time to breathe. That’s part of the excitement of the books, but it’s also a style that may not appeal to everyone.

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