When your average, 16-year old loser, Scott Tyler, meets the beautiful and mysterious Aubrey Jones, he learns he’s not so average after all. He’s a ‘Shifter’. And that means he has the power to undo any decision he’s ever made. At first, he thinks the power to shift is pretty cool. But as his world starts to unravel around him he realises that each time he uses his power, it has consequences; terrible unforeseen consequences. Shifting is going to get him killed. In a world where everything can change with a thought, Scott has to decide where he stands.
Atmospheric Analysis: The cover for Shift looks like a movie poster, right down to the Michael Bay-esque contrast between the blue on the lower left-hand side and the brown on the upper right, which was probably intentional. If nothing else, it matches the tone of the book perfectly.
Planetary Class: Shift falls squarely into the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ superhero story genre, here given a science fictional veneer by frequent invocations of quantum physics. I’d compare it most strongly to the movie adaptation of Jumper.
Viability Rating: Someone (or, more likely, many someones) made the observation that quantum physics is the new radiation. Once upon a time you could explain away all manner of superpowers with the convenient excuse that ‘radiation did it’, before everyone copped to the idea that exposure to radiation is more likely to kill you than to let you see through walls. Now writers can take their pick from a list of cutting-edge scientific concepts like nanotechnology, antimatter and quantum physics. Shift utilizes the last of these, along with the ever-popular multiverse hypothesis. It’s not viable, exactly, but then neither was Peter Parker getting superpowers from a radioactive spider. The point is to give the wholly fantastical a scientific paint job, and it works as well here as it does elsewhere. (Which is to say, if you’re nitpicking the science, you’re missing the point.)
Having said that, anyone who’s sick of hearing the phrase ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’ will probably want to skip over the section where Aubrey tries to explain how Shifting works.
Mohs Scale: 4 – this is a case of ‘One Big Lie’. Shifting, while scientifically impossible, is handled in a consistent manner and is extrapolated upon logically. I particularly liked the technology that allows Shifters to explore possible hypothetical futures without actually committing to them – again, the explanation is shaky as all hell, but it makes perfect sense if you’re willing to accept the premise in the first place.
Xenolinguisical Assessment: This may just be a cultural thing, but I’ve always thought that a lot of American YA books depict a highly sanitized version of what it’s like to be a teenager. This tends to be particularly true of first-person American YA novels, whose viewpoint characters can come across as weirdly prudish to someone raised in a country where teenagers use swear words the way most people use punctuation.
I actually didn’t know that Kim Curran is Irish (like me!) until after I started reading Shift, but I wasn’t overly surprised when I found out. Early on, Scott, the novel’s protagonist, describes an urban legend in which a boy from his school had one of his testicles ripped off after falling from an electricity pylon; naturally, his friends reacted by blessing him with a humorous nickname. ‘Oh, that’s more like it,’ I found myself thinking. Scott might not swear constantly, but he does it enough to sound realistic, and his narration is generally a bit more frank than I’m used to seeing in YA. This extends to most of the supporting cast, who smoke, drink and generally act like you’d expect fifteen and sixteen-year-olds to act if they were given superpowers and then left unsupervised for long periods of time.
Expanded Report: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a teenage loser meets a hot girl who tells him that he has superpowers, which he then uses to show up the stereotypical high school bullies who heaped clichéd torment after clichéd torment upon him for so many years.
All right, so Shift doesn’t entirely adhere to the above formula (Scott’s superpowers make his life significantly worse after he discovers them, at least in the short term), but it comes close enough that I found myself rolling my eyes on more than one occasion. I can’t help but feel that ‘loser’ is one of those adjectives that should never be applied to a character, if only because it so often seems to be the only adjectives that comes to mind when you think about that character. I’m hard-pressed to describe Scott in broader terms than that, possibly because the book seems intent on reinforcing his loser-ness at every opportunity.
Scott’s ‘hot mysterious girl’ is Aubrey Jones, who is also blessed (or cursed) with the ability to alter reality by rewriting her own decisions after the fact. She works for ARES, an organisation that tracks down Shifters and either trains them to use their powers or else locks them up until they inevitably lose the ability to Shift in their late teens or early twenties. She’s imbued with a healthy dose of grittiness, which (thankfully) keeps her out of Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but she’s still the kind of character you’ve likely seen a hundred times before: quirky, beautiful, damaged, and inexplicably (not to mention reluctantly) drawn to an everyman hero.
If you’re thinking that you can already guess the kind of direction Shift’s plot is going to go in, then you’d probably be right…assuming you’re currently imagining several completely different plots. The book starts off a bit like that movie The Butterfly Effect, with Scott accidentally altering his own past in such a way that his sister died in a moped accident. He desperately tries to fix it – and then succeeds. Just like that. From there, the plot swings in a different direction, with Scott joining ARES’s ranks as a trainee Shifter. He meets his fellow students and goes to class to learn how to safely alter reality, and the book seems to be coasting along in a relatively predictable direction.
Then it changes completely. Again.
To say that this is jarring would be an understatement. I realize that it sounds as though I’m saying that a book taking its plot in unexpected directions is a bad thing, but that’s not the problem here. Shift doesn’t just change direction; it almost changes genre. There were several times when I had to stop to remind myself how exactly the characters got around to doing whatever it was they were doing in a particular scene, which will kill your involvement with a book faster than anything else. It didn’t help that Scott’s Shifting frequently alters how much different characters know about each other, radically changing their relationships from one moment to the next.
Overall, Shift felt a bit half-backed, which is a shame given the potential in the premise. The book does do some interesting things with the whole concept of Shifting, and the characters are endearingly realistic throughout. I just wish had a better idea of what kind of story it wants to tell.