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BOOK REVIEW: Random by Alma Alexander

REVIEW SUMMARY:A good YA novel with a fresh take on shapeshifters, marred somewhat with worldbuilding and ending issues.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Jazz Marsh, “Were”, a shapeshifter, grows into her heritage, and discovers the legacy of her lost elder sister in the process.

PROS: Interesting exploration of a modern take on shapeshifters; epistolary format an excellently used narrative structure.
CONS: “Wham line” (a line of dialogue that radically alters a scene) ending does encourage continuance of the series at the expense of a complete story; vagueness in external world details didn’t work for me.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting and fresh take on shapeshifters.

Jazz Marsh, teenaged daughter of immigrant parents, has many of the challenges that a child of immigrants has. Learning to deal with living in a new country, speaking a new language. Jazz is home-schooled, which means that for the most part, she is closeted and cosseted by overprotective parents that many people could identify with. In the midst of finding out who and what she is, though, Jazz carries additional, extra burden.

You see, her family are Were, shapeshifters, who for three days out of every month shift into another form. The Were have been reluctantly welcomed in their new home country, with onerous restrictions placed on them, especially in regards to their monthly transformations. Even more unusually, Jazz’s family are of a particular variety of shifters whose form isn’t already determined by their bloodline. When Jazz shifts for the first time, she changes into something rather different than the cat her father turns into, the rabbit her aunt changes into, the weasel her brother hopes to be, or even the chicken that her mother is. No, Jazz changes into something even stranger and unexpected.

The novel explores two narratives. Jazz’s story is the main narrative, a nearly 15 year old protagonist who has her first Turning early, and in a most unexpected manner–she changes into a teenage boy. The consequences of this unexpected change form one of the backbones of the book. Changes, even for the Random Were like the Marsh family, are always to non sentient animals, unaware of who and what they are. Alexander does an excellent job on considering what the mechanics of human beings who change into animals for three days a month would mean in practice. The fact that Jazz breaks those rules provides a counterpoint, and a view as to why those rules are in place and how they work.

The other part of the narrative is Jazz’s reading, and posting on a blog, of her deceased sister Celia’s secret diary. The mystery of the tragedy of Celia, and the subsequent effects on the Marsh family (especially as to how they treat Jazz) is effectively detailed in this modern epistolary format. The reader is thus reading and reacting to these journal entries posted by Jazz, with enough of a time lag to the main story that draws the reader to continually want to know more and more about what exactly happened to Celia, and why.

Together, these two narratives provide a portrait of a family very different than the readers, and yet extremely familiar and easy to identify with. While the politics and problems of the Were community and the Marsh family in particular are imaginary, the family dynamics and personal perspective from a teenage perspective feels true and poignant. Alexander keeps a tight focus on Jazz and Celia, and we get to know both of them intimately and deeply.

Random is extremely vague on the details of the world. What country the Random came from, what country the Random live in now, much less any particular part of that country, are left as a near tabula rasa. There is some business about original names that might point to an origin or original country the Were came from, but there are no details as to the destination whatsoever. I see a possible reason for the author to choose this –to make the story as universal as possible, so that readers can fill in these details as they see fit, to better identify with Jazz and her story. This is a laudable technique, however for me, it lead to a distancing effect, detaching me from where she was situated in time and space. My brain ran through a few iterations and possibilities but the lack of cues and clues meant that I could never decide. Its meant not to matter, but instead, it turns out to be something I can’t know but want to.

The ending of the story has a wham line that is clearly meant to be a lead off for a continuance, a series in the making. Instead of making me want to read the next volume for hoped for continuance and explication, though, it makes this story as written in this volume feel incomplete. As a reader even within series, I value a story that I can close and walk away from with a completed story. Narrative devices that prevent that do me, as a reader, no favors.

Despite the problems I had with the novel, Random has an excellently drawn protagonist, with a painfully real and true feeling set of problems that are easy to identify with. I can imagine teenagers having an even stronger reaction to the book and connection to its heroine. On those grounds, then, Random does succeed.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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