According to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werewolf, Gaius Petronius Arbiter, wrote about the transformation of man into wolf in the Satyricon, published in 60 C.E. The legend of shape shifters and wereworlves exists in many cultures and many lands. The fear of werewolves and the evil they do is a fairly well known part of the legend. It is commonly thought that were-wolves have super human strength and speed, being only harmed by special "silver" bullets, and were able to heal themselves of injury. The werewolf is thought to be most vulnerable as a human than as a wolf.
Sharon Shinn's "Still Life with Shape-Shifter" comes at the story of were-wolf's from a completely different angle. She wants to show how were-wolves live and love in America, and finds their lives fraught with peril. Her shape-shifters are far from invincible powerful monsters. Instead, most are scrawny, malnourished and die by 50 if they are lucky. Although some are cute little dogs when children, they are almost uniformly abandoned by their families, who either cannot accept a werewolf or cannot live with one. Werewolves cannot control their transformation and so live troubled lives. Its hard to hold down a job or go to school if you must turn into a wolf. Its hard to meet others of their kind. But most importantly, Shinn imagines that the process of becoming a werewolf puts tremendous stress on the body. Although the actual transformation is magical and glowing, the were-wolves's organs are affected by the sheer fact that the body is transformed from small to large size and back again. The expanding and contracting of the body hurts the human. And if this story was more about were-wolves and the problems they face it might have held more interest.
But that's just a subtext.
Instead this is really a story about the power of love -both the love of a woman for a man and the love of a woman for a child, which is exacerbated when the lover is a were-wolf suffering a terminal illness.
Melanie Landon is hiding from life in a small town called Dagmar. She lives in an old beat up house with a huge lot right in the middle of two big housing projects. She refuses to sell her house for big bucks because she is afraid for her half sister Ann, a shapeshifter -- who is "her whole life". After Ann's mother ran off and Melanie and Ann's father went crazy, Melanie raised Ann and loves her like a parent. She, however, cannot let go of Ann. Melanie lives in perpetual fear that Ann will be hurt or killed in her other shape or that the secret will come out. Melanie is paralyzed. But when Ann returns to Melanie its like the dawn of a new day. Melanie is happy.
Then Brody Westerbrook appears. An ex-reporter, who witnessed the transformation of a wolf into a man, he wants to write a book about shape-shifters and believes that Ann is a shifter. Handsome, articulate and smart, Brody starts to win over Melanie's heart, while her brain and her fear for her sister try to keep him away. Its a battle for Melanie's soul. Melanie and Brody are good characters and have their moments. Brody, who seems to want to make his mark on the world, gives up a lot Melanie's love, Brody promises to stay away from the story of Ann. Meanwhile Ann has found a fellow shape-shifter and introduces Melanie to his family. But Ann's boyfriend has noticed that Ann seems to be ill and sleeps a lot.
But before we can explore these issues, boom, Shinn shifts to another story set in the novel -- a story that seems to takes place roughly 15 years before the Melanie and Brody story started and also intersects their story. Its the story of Janet and Cooper. Janet, a human teenager, lives with trying parents, when she meets and befriends Cooper, a young shape-shifter artist and learns to love him. Cooper would like to be human all the time, but cannot, and soon also feels the affects of his shape shifting process. Janet goes to college and tries to learn how to control the shape shifting process. She becomes a doctor to the shifter community and valiantly tries to help Cooper arrest his accelerated aging process. Although this could have been interesting, it seems tacked onto the Melanie story.
Meanwhile in the Brody, Melanie, Ann triangle, Melanie learns that Ann is really ill and could soon die. Its like reading about a person who loves her daughter and learns she has lung cancer. Ann's condition is sad, and Melanie is prepared to do what she can for the lover of her life, but Ann also cannot let go of Melanie. We want to believe that Ann will survive and that Janet will win out against the werewolf aging problem, but there are boring stretches too.
An urban fantasy had turned into a novel that explored how people deal with dreadful illness and what they have to do to help. Melanie must learn to escape her still life and let her sister go. But then we have Janet, who under somewhat similar circumstances, makes a completely different decision. She cannot let Cooper go and make the ultimate sacrifice merely to spend a few short months with her lover. The story is not happy. Its just sad and unreal.
This was not a gritty urban fantasy. It was instead a story about love and sick were-wolves, and that was mostly disappointing.