High school has a way of changing people and bringing out their essence. But what happens when high school changes you in ways you never even expected? That’s what happens to incoming freshman Ethan, who wakes up on the first day of school to discover that he…has become a she.
Yup. Ethan has transformed overnight into a green-eyed blonde teenage girl, and that’s just the first of many surprises. Her parents give her the quick rundown before sending her off to school. It turns out that she’s part of a race called Changers, and that every year for the next four years, she’ll experience life in a new body, a new identity, and once the cycle is complete, she’ll be able to choose which form to keep permanently. In the meantime…enjoy your new life!
The newly-dubbed Drew is thus tossed into the social pool and forced to sink or swim with nary more than a quick crash course in what it’s like to be a girl. She has to overcome old habits and mannerisms, adjust to new muscle memory and reflexes, and even deal with new urges. Luckily, Drew’s fairly quick to adjust, soon making new friends (and enemies) and even joining the junior varsity cheerleading squad. Of course, no one could prepare her for certain female biological issues, or how teenage girls act towards each other, or what to do when you develop a crush.
Weirder still is Drew’s continuing introduction to the Changers themselves. Part race, part secret society, part cult, they have mandatory mixers, a special Bible, and very strict rules about who not to date (other Changers) and who not to confide in (non-Changers). Their stated mandate may be to make the world a better place by fostering understanding, empathy, shared experience, and change, but there’s something quietly creepy about the whole thing. And then there’s the radical faction who wants to go public, and a group dedicated to eradicating Changers.
By the time the school year is over, Drew will have a much better idea of what it’s like to be a girl. She’ll also have risked everything for a friend, lost another friend, and made more than a few mistakes. But what else is new?
Changers Book One: Drew is the first of a four book planned series; as such, it serves as a fascinating and provocative introduction to the setting and premise. It’s a fantastic, if somewhat flawed, look at gender and identity, focused through a science fiction narrative. And the ideas behind it blew me away, even if the execution could stand some improvement.
First, the good points. The way this story works with regards to sexuality, gender, identity, and self-image is wonderful. As Ethan attempts to reconcile his previous experience as a guy with her new existence as a girl, he provides a hilarious and pointed commentary on a number of subjects. Through the course of the story, he has to deal with attraction to/from both boys and girls, and much to his credit, he takes those aspects in stride, without it turning sordid or prurient. If anything, Drew’s thought processes are a little too tame for your average teenager.
Let’s address the elephant in the room while we’re here. Yes, this is absolutely the perfect allegory for the queer and trans experience. One of the authors, T Cooper, actually is a trans man, while his wife and co-author, Allison Glock-Cooper, won a 2011 GLAAD Award for her excellent article for Oprah, in which she talked about their relationship. With credentials like that, I’ll definitely give these authors credit for penning a believable, sympathetic, and honest experience.
I like the premise. The concept of someone who has to cycle through four very different identities in the course of their high school career is rife with potential and drama. Publicity materials for this series claimed, “The cheerleader, the nerd, the jock, the freak. What if you had to be all four?” Since we’ve seen the cheerleader, that gives us a pretty good road map for the next three books. What it doesn’t tell us is just what order the identities will take, or who they are as people, or—most importantly-who our hero will ultimately choose in the end. (One of the rules set in stone is that a Changer cannot go back to their original life. So, good-bye, Ethan, we barely knew you.)
However, the set-up and execution inspire dozens of questions. Why didn’t Ethan’s parents warn him he might just possibly wake up as someone else? Why weren’t they better prepared for the result? (Them: “It’s a girl!” right before dressing Drew in some of Mom’s clothes…) Why do they immediately send Drew off to school instead of, oh, taking some time to help her adjust? Who really decides who becomes a Changer and who gets what identity? How are these identities created and activated? It’s suggested that some identities get recycled through the generations…but if someone selects one permanently, is it retired? Why is the Changer Council so creepy? And so on. I can only assume that many of these questions will be answered as the series continues.
This series doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be Middle Grade or Young Adult, instead teetering on the awkward edge in-between. It’s rather tame where teenage urges and exploration go. I’m not saying it should launch immediately into mature topics like sex, but Drew seems to adapt relatively quickly to her new situation, while skimming over many of the details. What romance we see is on the chaste side. You could hand this book to just about anyone in junior high or up, and not worry about the content. And yet it feels a little more mature than your typical MG. It’s hard to peg the exact age range as a result. (It’s rated for 12-up.) Then again, Drew’s only a freshman. The next three years might prove to be extremely strange and interesting.
The pacing is definitely off in this book. Ethan becomes Drew pretty much first thing off, and Drew is sent to school, and the action unfolds over the course of a full school year. It’s simultaneously too quick to start and yet too slow to get up to full speed, and it’s over by the time things really get good. (When one of Drew’s female friends makes a move on her, it’s a surprising game-changer, and yet it comes too late to affect the story.) At almost 300 pages, you’d think it would be long enough to explore the story properly, but this is one case where the authors could have expanded and fleshed out so much more. Yes, I’m greedy. I wanted more.
In the end, I loved the first book of Changers. The authors are off to a great start and I can’t wait to see where they take the series. While it may not be the most sophisticated or complex of tales, it’s still an excellent look at gender and identity and the teenage experience. It reminds me a lot of David Levithan’s Every Day, and should appeal to that same audience. And I wholly support the authors’ stated goal of “the fantasy being that the more humans have actually considered life from different people’s perspectives, the more empathetic we as a race can be.” Anything that encourages understanding and empathy is fine by me.
Changers Book One: Drew is available February 4th from Akashic Books.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.