I've started rereading Julie E. Czerneda'sWeb Shifters series beginning with the first book, Beholder's Eye. Czerneda is one of my favorite authors and I enjoy going back and experiencing her character's stories again. She writes my kind of science fiction—a universe filled with a variety of intelligent species doing their best to get by each day. It's space opera and tons of fun. Let me tell you why I think this book is worth your time.
Beholder's Eye is the story of Esen-Alit-Quar “Es”, a member of a long-lived species of shape-shifters. The youngest of the Web, Es undertakes an assignment to learn about the people of Kraos. Her first assignment. That's the purpose that drives her kind—to learn of and preserve the accomplishments of intelligent species. Only it goes wrong when Es discovers a plot to murder the members of a human first-contact team and intervenes.
Not only that, but Death stalks the Fringe, leaving empty colonies and ships in its wake. Es and her human friend Paul embark on adventures that lead Es to break all of the rules of her kind.
Reinventing Shape-shifters: The First Rule of the Web? You Don't Talk About the Web
Shape-shifters inhabit the stories told in most cultures at one time or another. From skinwalkers, spirits, and Tengu to current day tales such as the shape-shifting changelings on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or The Thing. Unlike Star Trek's Odo, Es can't take the shape of inanimate objects. She can become intelligent species, becoming indistinguishable from the actual species. Kurt Russell isn't going to uncover a web-being by sticking a hot needle in a blood sample! Also unlike The Thing, the web-beings don't imitate individuals. They are individuals.
If a web-being like Es became a dog — that is the dog they would be every time they became a dog. Don't like being a pug? Tough, that's who you are. Learn to accept it. What happens to a web-being's form persists. Going with the dog example — if someone docked your tail it would still be gone the next time you shifted into that form. Injuries to a form have to heal in that form. You don't get to shift and shift back to magically heal your wounds. The memory of the damage persists.
Even though this isn't hard science fiction, Czerneda plays by her rules, particularly when it comes to a shape-shifter's mass. If a web-being was running around as a 50 lb. dog suddenly wanted to shift into a domestic tabby cat, they would have to shed energy (mass) to shift into the smaller size. Uncontrolled shifting to their natural web form can have explosive results. Likewise, to shift into a larger form, a web-being needs to assimilate organic matter, converting it into new web mass.
I really love Czerneda's inventiveness in her science fiction. It's terrific.
The Fantastic Characters of Beholder's Eye
Esen is one of my favorite characters in science fiction. The youngest of her Web, she is curious and compassionate. She's immediately likable. I particularly like how Esen's perspectives change in different forms. Her thought processes and behaviors reflect the species that she becomes. At the same time, Esen retains that core element that is Esen. This is sort of like watching Tatiana Maslany play multiple characters on Orphan Black.
The human contact specialist Paul provides an interesting Watson to Esen's Holmes. Skilled in languages, curious, and determined not to give up on Esen, Paul is another great character. The story stays in Esen's point of view, so we don't get inside Paul's head but we do get to see his actions and the consequences.
Ersh, the eldest of Esen's kind, ancient and intimidating, provides a nice counter to Esen. The same is true with the other members of Ersh's Web, but it is Ersh herself that is most often in Esen's thoughts as she breaks the rules established by Ersh. They have a complex relationship, and through Ersh we have a chance to see what Esen might become someday.
Death and Acting Captain Kearn are the main antagonists in Beholder's Eye. Death stalks the colonies and ships before discovering the existence of Ersh's Web and more enticing prey. Acting Captain Kearn, convinced that Esen and Death are one in the same, becomes focused on tracking down Esen in order to stop the killings and prove himself.
There are many other wonderful characters and fascinating aliens in this novel (and series).
Julie E. Czerneda is a fantastic science fiction and fantasy author. This series remains one of my favorites and I enjoyed it as much (or more) this time through. With the release of the first book in the new series, I'm going back through from the beginning to reread the earlier books. There's nothing like dropping back into a beloved story. I hope you'll check out the entire series!