Once upon a time, there was a Big Bad Wolf. He ate grandma, remember? Terrorized poor old Red right out of her hood?
Then he got all smexied up, became either a were or a shapeshifter (because they’re different, you know—it’s that whole moon thing), and turned into a romantic hero. Big alpha males who change into a beast to defeat the bad guys and a cuddly puppy when confronted with the right woman. What’s not to love?
The first non-horror shifter I remember reading was Laurell K. Hamilton’s Richard in the Anita Blake series. Richard Zeeman was handsome, tortured, and total hotness on two legs or four…well, until he got whiny and annoying. But he had a good run of books before that happened.
Since then, werewolves have remained at the head of the were-critter/shapeshifter pack as the alphas of paranormal romance and urban fantasy, but they’ve gradually had to learn to share the spotlight with some other shifters. Some are equally sexy. (I mean, who doesn’t love a big old were-tiger? Was I the only one shouting for Sookie to stick with Quinn? I think not.) Others are, well, downright bizarre.
So without casting judgment as to which beastly character I might or might not indulge a few smexy fantasies about, a brief overview of some of our ever-changing shifters:
WOLVES: The werewolves and wolf shifters are still dominant, but authors are twisting the mythology in interesting ways. Patricia Briggs and Terry Spear use real wolf pack behavior to keep their big dogs interesting, and Briggs’s Mercy Thompson is herself a coyote skinwalker. Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville is a werewolf with a late-night advice show for paranormals. Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series features the SnowDancer wolf pack. Jim Butcher’s Dresden series also has featured skinwalker wolves, and the French incarnation of the werewolf, the loup garou. My Sentinels series features a further twist on the loup garou, making him a rogue among wolves. The long-extinct North American Dire Wolf has figured into Stephanie Tyler’s Eternal Wolf Clan series and Susannah Sandlin’s upcoming Storm Force.
BIG CATS: The big cats are a close second to the big dogs. Nalini Singh introduces the Dark Leopards in her Psy-Changeling universe. Christine Feehan has some leopard-shifting Carpathians. Anita Blake has gotten it on with some were-lions…and tigers…and leopards, oh my. Lora Leigh has her Breed series and Shelly Laurenston (who also does wolves) has her Pride series. In the Southern Vampires series, Charlaine Harris does werepanthers, and gives them an interesting spin by having them very inbred and unstable. Susannah Sandlin’s Storm Force features jaguarundi shifters. Each of the first five of Pamela Palmer’s Feral Warriors books features a different cat shifter: lion, tiger, panther, jaguar, and cougar. And Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock urban fantasy series has a Native American skinwalker who’s a big cat instead of a wolf.
DRAGONS: Long a mainstay of epic fantasy, dragons have become possibly the third most-popular incarnation of shifter in paranormal romance. A good dragon-romance primer? Thea Harrison’s Elder Races, GA Aiken’s Dragon Kin, and Deborah Cook’s Dragonfire are good places to start. Jennifer Ashley and Allyson James also have popular dragon series.
BIRDS. Anita got it on with the Swan King, who had creep-inducing feathery down in all the wrong places. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes has a race of avian shifters in her Kiesha’ra series. Susannah Sandlin has an eagle shifter in the upcoming novel Storm Force.
RODENTS. Continuing with the Anita Blake sexual shapeshifter escapades, we find Rafael, king of the were-rats, who could’ve been totally hot except for that rat thing. Is it just me, or is it hard to make a rat sexy?
SNAKES. Yes, Anita did snakes too, although I think all the snake-shifters were bad guys. S.A Price also has a snake-shifter series. Snakes kind of have that rodent stigma about them.
SEA-CREATURES: Both Patricia Briggs and Nicole Peeler have selkies and kelpies (and yes, Anita did a selkie once upon a time…I sense a theme here). I have Cajun mermen in my Sentinels series. Merfolk and selkies show up in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, and Yasmine Galenorn has selkies in her Otherworld series.
BUNNIES. Eve Langlais goes the rabbit route in Bunny and the Bear (and there might be a crocodile shifter, bear, and fox in her repertoire), albeit with laughs in mind, in her Furry United Coalition series.
HONEY BADGERS: Illona Andrews brings a honey-badger doctor into the mix in her Kate Daniels series (which has a lot of shifters in its multiverse). And we say, why not?
DINOSAURS. James R. Tuck, in his Deacon Chalk series, introduces a were T-Rex, while the hero in Nina Bangs’ Eternal Pleasure can shift into dino form.
THE DEMOCRATIC SHIFTERS. These are shifters who can take whatever shape they want. The best known is probably Sam Merlotte from Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire series (aka Sookie Stackhouse series). Sam looks at a photo, concentrates, and turns into whatever he needs to be—usually a domestic dog, but also an occasional bird. Another is Jean Johnson’s shifters in her Sons of Destiny series, which includes a hero who can change into a horse.
What’s your favorite odd shifter? Or are you a forever fan of the wolves and the big cats?
Urban fantasy author Suzanne Johnson writes the Sentinels of New Orleans series, which kicked off in 2012 with Royal Street and River Road.