Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
As I’ve said before and will say again, one reason I love the library is for book discovery. I had zero idea what I was in for with Worldshaper. In this case, I saw book 2 on the New Books shelf, and fortuitously book 1 was also present in that very same library branch. So I borrowed both on a wing and a prayer, and here we are. Perfectly serviceable portal fantasy for some holiday reading from Edward Willett!
Heads up that I put a spoiler flag on here for the allergic, but I’m not really going to spoil much of the plot. The whole next paragraph is paraphrased from the back cover. Later in the review I’m going to talk about the resolution of the book in very general terms. But you have been warned.
Shawna Keys is having a perfectly fine life in the world she didn’t know she created until one day everything comes crashing down. This guy named the Adversary shows up and tries to kill her, and this other guy named Karl, who doesn’t seem particularly trustworthy beyond not trying to kill her, pulls the whole “come with me if you want to live” routine on Shawna. As a result, she spends an entire novel running from the Adversary while getting a crash course in her ability—Shaping. Shawna and Karl need to escape her world and find their way to the heart of the Labyrinth of Worlds so that she can help her patron, Ygrair, stand against the Adversary. If she doesn’t, all of the Shaped worlds are in jeopardy. So, you know, no pressure.
So many things to like about this book. First, Shawna is a great protagonist. She’s smart and sarcastic, but not in the “I’m trying really hard to be sarcastic because sarcasm is cool” kind of way that seems to be a trend these days. A lot of her sarcasm is actually channelled anger and fear; she lashes out at Karl because she is tired, hungry, and, oh yeah, people are trying to kill her. Willett ensures that her reactions are always justifiable given the circumstances, and if at times she behaves somewhat irrationally, I think that makes a lot of sense given the pressure she’s under. I love how Shawna questions Karl constantly and doesn’t fully trust him. When someone shows up claiming to want to help you avoid getting killed, you don’t instantly become best friends. Similarly, I appreciate that Willett doesn’t develop any obvious sexual/romantic tension between the two of them.
Second thing I like about the book is how Willett handles exposition. Karl provides minor infodumps here and there when the breaks in the running permit it, and the perspective jumps to him or the Adversary help us fill in some of the blanks. There’s still a lot we don’t know about worldshaping, and I’m fine with that. (Oh, I should probably mention right now that this is one of those fantasy books that is actually science fiction in disguise. If that is a pet peeve of yours, just take it off the list. Otherwise, carry on!) Also, the off-brand references to things like HiPhone and a lunar colony stick out at first and seem strange until you make the connection that this is evidence Shawna is in a different world that merely shadows the First World (which is supposed to be Earth, I think, though you never know). So that was a retrospective “nicely done” from me.
Finally, Willett doesn’t shy away from the moral questions raised by Shawna creating sentient beings ex nihilo and having the power to Shape them to her will. Although Karl repeatedly warns her that she is not a god, that doesn’t obviate her ability to rewrite people’s personalities, memories, and desires—to remove their volition and replace it with her own. Shawna is rightly freaked out when she discovers she has this power, and throughout Worldshaper she ponders the implications. What does that mean for her relationships with her parents, her too-perfect boyfriend?
Despite all the good, Worldshaper never quite made me love it. Mostly this has to do with the plot. I appreciate that Willett goes into so much detail regarding Shawna and Karl’s flight west. He certainly succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tension and raising the stakes as they work first to destroy one Portal and then try to find the location where they can open another. He avoids the temptation to make Shawna too powerful yet allows her to exercise her power just enough to keep things interesting. Nevertheless, none of this really changes the underlying truth: this is a fugitive story, a chase story, and so the overall story arc of fighting the Adversary is never resolved. So, Worldshaper is definitely not a standalone novel. It ends on a mighty cliffhanger, and I’m glad I have book 2 waiting for me on the shelf.
The antagonist, the Adversary, is also as generic and bland as his moniker implies. Yes, we get a little bit of a backstory for him. Yes, it makes sense. But that’s all—and it’s all very impersonal. The best villains have a very personal stake in this, and we have yet to really see that from him. It’s often said a story is only as good as its villain, and while that’s reductive and not always true, I think it’s true for this story. Worldshaper’s mediocre villain is a good synecdoche for its mediocre story in general (in contrast to its interesting worldbuilding and protagonists, as noted above).
I read Worldshaper in an evening and morning/afternoon (I kept having to take breaks to shovel snow). So it’s an enjoyable, fast-paced read—it just never quite creates that “wow” factor I want in my fantasy novels. But you never know … the series might Shape me to believe differently after I read the sequel.