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Worldshaper
Worldshapers Series #1
by Edward Willett
DAW, $7.99, 352pp
Published: August 2019

There are whole shelves of books out there that explore the ideas of parallel universes or multiple worlds through a generally YA approach with a young, but not too young, female protagonist. The last one that I reviewed here was quite good for that ilk: 'Marked' by S. Andrew Swann. Here's another one, by Edward Willett, the first in an inevitable series. I wasn't impressed by the cover at all, something that takes a serious step up for the second book, but I enjoyed the novel as a sort of bubblegum romp, while acknowledging a bundle of serious problems.

That female protagonist is Shawna Keys and, when we join her at the outset of this novel, she's just opened a pottery in her home city of Eagle River, not far from Helena, MT. She calls it Worldshaper Pottery, though that isn't what gives this novel its title. Life is golden for Shawna. She's well liked, has a collection of friends and favourite places and even boasts a gorgeous, loving and helpful boyfriend called Brent. However, don't get envious. This situation is not going to last. In fact, it ends abruptly and emphatically.

The wild thunderstorm that nobody else notices is obviously a sign, but Shawna and her best friend Aesha head on out to the Human Bean, their favourite local coffee shop, only for a set of gunmen to burst in behind them and shoot Aesha dead. Shawna's quite natural emotional response to this injustice has the odd effect of rewinding time three hours. What's more, not only does she undo the attack, she undoes her friend as well. Now she's the only soul in Eagle River who remembers Aesha at all.

Clearly she and we need an explanation and that comes from, you guessed it, a mysterious stranger. Shawna initially thinks he's a stalker, but he does seem to understand what nobody else does. In fact, he understands everything, which is convenient. He's Karl Yatsar and he's not from this world. He's come to it through a Labyrinth of other worlds that oddly connect like a pearl necklace, in order to find her because she has the power that Ygrair needs to save it.

Most importantly, Karl tells Shawna that she's a Worldshaper, someone who had studied under Ygrair on the First Earth and then constructed this world on her own. Put simply, it's one of many clones of the First Earth, different only in ways she's imagined. Aesha wasn't real; she was the best friend Shawna wanted. Brent isn't real; he's just the dream boyfriend Shawna wanted. Nothing on the entire planet is real; it's either changed by Shawna or hasn't been changed by Shawna yet.

And that's the key here: she can still change whatever she wants, any time she wants, though the author imposes a balance so that if she fills in a lake here, there's going to be an equivalent hole somewhere else. Apply that to people who Shawna knows and it gets emotional and awkward fast. However, this really does mean that the entire planet is Shawna's Lego set, which concept raises a set of serious thoughts that the author really doesn't want to address.

For instance, if nobody is real, then Shawna shouldn't feel any consequences in changing them. How do you feel when your character kills other characters in a video game? Precisely. Shawna's effectively living in her very own video game, 24/7/365, but she's the only one with cheat codes. On this one planet, she's a God. In fact, she's God, because there are no others.

Ah, but that's just changed. Karl isn't the only outsider who's recently showed up in Shawna's world. There's also The Adversary. Yes, he's such a generic bad guy that he doesn't even have a name, just a mythic title. He's the dictator of his own world and he's been busy taking over others for good measure. Now he's planning to do the same here. And so, we're now in a scenario where there are a couple of gods, who both want control.

Unfortunately, Shawna didn't know any of this, for reasons that we haven't yet figured out, so the Adversary was able to steal a key part of her power at the coffee shop, so dooming her world to his control. So says Karl, who also says that the best thing they can do is escape it, find their way back through the Labyrinth to the first world to help Ygrair, at which point everything can be fixed. Yeah, I wasn't sure about the logic here either, but Shawna decides to go along with it and so we have our novel.

That's a lot of background, but it doesn't really spoil anything, because the answers to the questions you will be generating in your mind aren't answered in this book. I'm hoping that Edward Willett saw it as the origin story to what he wants to become a long running series and so put extra effort into defining the rules that have to be followed. Explanations (and no doubt tweaks) will arrive in later volumes.

The good side to this book is that Willett's prose is smooth, so we barrel on through this plot like lightning. It's a quick read and an enjoyable one. The faster we read, the more enjoyable it gets, because we stop asking all of the many questions that Willett doesn't want to answer yet. Whenever we slow down and form one of those questions, the book becomes more problematic, so we have to speed up again. As an adventure, this is a ripping yarn. As an exercise in worldbuilding, which isn't intended as a pun, it struggles a great deal.

Willett gives us a grounding but doesn't want to acknowledge the myriad holes. Who is Shawna if she's not just Shawna? How can she be a Worldshaper without any memory of being a Worldshaper? And how can she be THE Worldshaper Karl is looking for, the one with all the power, if she hasn't even been practicing it because she forgot? Is that some sort of psychological reaction to being a god with a planet sized Lego set? After all, it must be a lonely life living with minifigs, even if they're sentient and creative, when you're not moulding them into whatever you want.

It doesn't help that Willett falls prey to the network TV show syndrome, which is to say that the lead characters are pretty generic and ignorable, while the reason we tune in is for the quirky and interesting supporting characters. It's a real problem in this instance, because there are literally only three people here: the Worldshaper, the Adversary and the Guide. Everyone else is imaginary and it's pretty sucky when the most interesting characters are quite literally throwaways because they're not really people, just clay that walks and talks, but might walk and talk differently tomorrow on a whim.

I'm interested in where this is going to go, especially as book two, Master of the World, appears to be a steampunk adventure with a host of characters from Jules Verne novels. I'm eager to see how that goes, but it needs to provide a set of answers because I'm not going to stick around for long without them. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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