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The Unleashing by Shelly Laurenston
The third time I heard a romance reader utter the phrase "billionaire bears," followed by a giggle, I realized that shape-shifter romance had taken off in such a big way that "werebears" wasn't a good enough category anymore"”we now needed a further subdivision into "billionaire bears." What was going on?
Shape-shifters. Skinwalkers. Weres. Mostly human on the outside and concealing an animal on the inside, shape-shifting heroes and heroines boldly straddle the world between civilization and the wild"¦and that's where the fun begins.
"Shape-shifters are allowed to have a certain freedom outside of boundaries that human characters often can't," says Cindy Hwang, vice president and executive editor of Berkley Books. This gives the author room to steer their characters in new directions. "With characters who are only part human, you have a lot more leeway," says Shelly Laurenston, author of The Unleashing and the extremely popular Pride series. "I can do things with a heroine who's part bear that I can't do with a regular ol' human like myself."
As the rules on what's acceptable behavior drop away, authors can delve into character growth in innovative ways. Says Jeffe Kennedy of how shape-shifting ties into a larger theme that winds through her books: "Having characters shape-shift is a metaphor for personal transformation." Each of Kennedy's Twelve Kingdoms books focus on three princesses who have the power to affect great changes to their country but need to discover who and what they are first. "I'm really interested in personal growth, how we overcome our flaws to become happier and fulfilled"”reaching for that self-actualization. Shape-shifting is one way of getting there."
Striking off in another direction, Jennifer Ashley likes to explore "the strength of family and community" in her Shifters Unbound novels, most recently in Mate Bond. "My shape-shifter heroes have the best of both human and animal traits"”they're strong, protective, fierce, loving, kick-butt fighters, and loving parents." Her heroes and heroines have been corralled into Shiftertowns and fitted with Collars to keep them from committing violent acts. Only by sticking together as they deal with internal and external forces can the shifters survive, but, Ashley explains, "Their wildness can never be completely tamed."
That wildness is part of the attraction to romance readers. Take a glance through a dozen romance covers featuring weres or shifters, and very human manly chests are on prominent display. "There's an animalistic level of passion a shifter might reach that a normal human could not," says author Rebecca Zanetti, who penned the Dark Protector series and is shifting gears to a new series with her upcoming Wicked Ride (June).
Alicia Condon, Kensington's Editorial Director, also sees the sensuality of many shape-shifter romances as a key component for readers. "They're hot! Those uncontrollable urges and enhanced abilities give shape-shifters larger-than-life appeal, but their essentially human nature makes them sympathetic too."
Characters who are closer to and more accepting of those urges is part of why Nalini Singh enjoys writing her Psy-Changeling novels. "I love that these heroes and heroines are more in touch with, and comfortable with, their primal skin. They often break the rules of 'civilized' behavior, and their emotions are worn far closer to the surface."
If you're new to shape-shifter romances and want to take a walk on the wild side, Cindy Hwang of Berkley suggests a number of books to start with, including Nalini Singh's Slave to Sensation, Christine Feehan's Leopard series starting with Wild Rain, and Eileen Wilks's Tempting Danger. Hwang calls out Thea Harrison's Dragon Bound as something special: "One of the most unique"”and most memorable"”shape-shifter romances that I've ever read. The hero, Dragos, is a dragon who can shape-shift into a man, which is very different from being a man who can shape-shift into a dragon. "
Thea Harrison gets the thumbs-up from Nalini Singh and Jeffe Kennedy as well. Strong shape-shifting characters also populate several urban fantasy series that have a romantic thread: Kennedy cites Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels books as among her favorites, and Jennifer Ashley points to Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series as books she recommends to readers.
Finally, Kensington's Alicia Condon looks ahead at where this frisky category is going: "The addition of humor." Darkly intense half-human heroes will always make the heart throb, but there's more than enough room for shape-shifters who laugh and make readers laugh, too.
A shifter who has a sense of humor? Toss in some cooking skills, and you've found the perfect part-human mate. Lions and Tigers and Bears? Oh, my"¦
Adrian Liang will be writing "Kiss and Tell" posts every week about the best and brightest romance novels and novelists. Subscribe to the Omnivoracious email newsletter to get a sneak peek at more amazing books.