This is a new aspect to my Urban Fantasy 101 blog series that I hope y’all find useful! I read a lot of urban fantasy and paranormal romance and I wanted to make little primers for tropes, sub-genres, and whatnot in these overarching genres in order to help introduce new readers to things they might not be familiar with!
What are shifters?
“Shifter” is short for “shape-shifter”.
Both terms can be used to encompass everything from the traditional fantasy novel fare like werewolves to mythological/folkloric beings like selkies and the lamia.
The most important thing that most shifters have in common across the genres they show up in is that they usually have at least two forms: a base human(oid) form and a full “animal” form. Some shifters have the ability to partially shift parts of their bodies or to inhabit a third full form between beast and human.
Shifters tend to live in family dynamics that call back to but don’t explicitly mimic the living situation of the natural animals.
For example, the whole thing about wolves having alphas and omegas and all that good stuff? Debunked AGES ago. However, it’s still a go-to for writers in these genres when they write a werewolf pack.
In shifter series, shifters with beast components linked to non-pack animals (like giant felines, bears, and snakes) either go over the top in living in representing the living/mating situations of their wild compatriots or they live in giant packs.
As I mentioned in Urban Fantasy 101: Weird Ass Werewolf Tropes, many werewolf series tend to have werewolves either be born or made (by a bite from another werewolf). That translates pretty neatly to other shifters. However, I have noticed that born shifters are gaining in popularity across the genre. Especially when you bring in the romance component.
Shifter romances, really?
With The Shape of Water winning Oscars and other awards in 2018, it’s never been clearer that humanity just finds something awesome about falling in love with “monsters”. And, historically, shifters have been considered monsters for much of their existence in the genre.
I think that shifter romance needs to be a main component of the narrative of an urban fantasy or paranormal romance story for me to call it that. Like Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series see the titular character in a relationship with the Prince of Cats who’s a shapeshifter, but I have never thought that the series falls under the umbrella of shifter romance because the series isn’t about that romance.
Some series have shifter romance and other series are shifter romances.
The Good, The Bad, and the Awfully Upsetting
- Many actually empowering female characters who are strong but sensitive. It’s 2018, it’s actually pretty rare to find a shifter romance without female characters who are strong and sharp.
- I love the sweet intimacy between the romantic pairs.
- Fated mates/pairs are my actual weakness. It can be problematic because choice is so important (not to mention how many of the stories with fated mates are hugely heterocentric), but there’s something about reading those wildly implausible and goopy pairs that works for me.
- Sometimes, there are baby shapeshifters and they’re usually adorable.
- Alpha males abound in this subgenre as do possessive male characters and rigid reliance on heteronormative and ciscentric gender roles.
- As a whole, many of the popular shifter series that are out there have little or no interest in subverting or calling out hegemony or established (harmful) societal structures – or no idea how to do them properly.
- Allegories for racism abound in a stories that typically don’t center characters of color – shifter or otherwise.
The Awfully Upsetting
- Forced mating as a trope is pretty darn present in this sort-of subgenre, as is having a male alpha absolutely disregard the will of their partner because they can smell their arousal or because mated pairs are always receptive.
- Many shifter romances deal (rather poorly, I think) with sexual violence and slavery. It’s a topic that I frequently see handled badly in the same way over and over again.
- Across the board, the reproductive politics in a majority of shape shifter romances are pretty darn archaic and cis/hetero-centric to boot, focusing primarily on cis and straight male/female characters and the anxieties that they have about babies. (I’m so tired of stories where cis female shifters are traditionally only important for breeding purposes and then one Strong Female Character is brave enough to break free because that’s about as far as we get when it comes to repro-politics in much of the genre.)
- All of the Anita Blake series.
Why (I Think) You Should Be Reading Shifter Stories
I’d like to be glib and toss out a reference to “monster fucking” because I think that’s the best, but that’s not all there is to adore about shifter romances.
I’m a fan of the “duality of man” aspect of shifters in general and while romance isn’t my thing in meatspace, I love that shifter romances can bring up really interesting questions about what it means to love a shifter/love as a shifter. Part of the joy that I get is finding new books in the subgenre and basking in the way that the genre has evolved over the years by incorporating actually diverse characters into their works.
- Laurell K Hamilton
- Patricia Briggs
- Nalini Singh
- Shelly Laurenston
- Sherrilyn Kenyon
- Ilona Andrews
- Eileen Wilks
Mind you, I personally can’t recommend Laurell K Hamilton or Patricia Briggs’ work (due to racism, unaddressed/unchecked homophobia, and/or rape culture throughout). The other authors on this list have their problems (mostly unwavering heteronormativity in their shifter pairs) but they’re not anywhere near as bad as those authors in their shifter series.
Recommendations/Where To Start
- Anne Bishop’s The Others’ series (major trigger warnings for graphic violence and descriptions of sexual assault)
- Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series (content warnings for violence)
- Ann Aguirre’s Ars Numina series (content warnings for violence)
- Sam Burns’ Rowan Harbor Cycle series (M/M with werewolf love interests)
- Michelle Osgood’s got some great queer werewolf novels
- L. L. Raand’s Midnight Hunters series
- Cereus anthology series with Sean Michael, B. A. Tortuga and Julia Talbot (M/M)
- LessThanThreePress has a whole bunch of shifter stories once you search (but check the content warnings before purchasing because some of the stories have um… incest and that’s a major hard limit for many people)
- Jennifer Ashley’s Shifters Unbound series (so far all of the stories appear to be hetersexual and cisgender M/F though but you can always read it for the worldbuilding)
- I have a whole rec list of queer werewolf stories here. Many are romances/romantic!
- Here’s a Goodreads list for lesbian werewolves.
- What comes up when you search “shifter romance” on Amazon
- WOC in Romance’s Shifter tag
The best thing about shifter romances is that there are so many out there. Sometimes, I have a hard time finding diverse shifter romances in the genre, but then I put up a request on twitter and WHAM books.
If you’re a fan of shifter romances, what drew you to the subgenre? What are some of your favorite series or authors? And do you think there’s a shifter romance I should be reading?