Going to Ground: Shapeshifter Book 3 by Ali Sparkes

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Going to Ground: Shapeshifter Book 3 by Ali Sparkes

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Four eleven- and twelve- year olds go on the run after one uses her psychic abilities to discern a threat. They are chased across the southwest of England by shadowy agents, in a thriller that could have had more thrills but is enjoyable enough.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0192754677

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It is, of course, reviewer's short-hand to say that the subject at hand is a mixture of 'something' with 'something else'. Here though the temptation is rather too strong, so I shall bow to it. The Shapeshifter series, from this third book anyway, is a cross between X-Men - the School Days, and Manimal.

Dax is the title character - an eleven year old who can instantly alter his form into that of a fox, or a peregrine falcon - and instantly change back, clothing and pocket change still handily intact. That's where the Manimal reference comes in.

As for the X-Men, Dax has links with over 100 other psychically and supernaturally talented school-age children, who should all be at their special institute, if it hadn't been destroyed in, I guess, the second book in the series. Chief amongst those others are Lisa, a psychic telepath with lots of mental powers, Mia the healer, and Gideon, whose abilities in telekinesis - moving items with only a mental touch - might be at the core of the thriller involved here.

Lisa gets psychic wind of a threat to her friends, and all four go on the run west and south of Dax's Hampshire home. Behind them, Government agents, also intent on the mystery that surrounds these unique children, and the school's chief teacher. To close the X-Men references, he might be Xavier, he might be Magneto, but for now the four don't want contact with anyone else until their mystery and chase can conclude.

It's a fair way into this slow-burning thriller that you realise how important the chase is. It provides an element of the exotic to the average city tweenage reader of this book, who apparently wouldn't be able to identify where beef comes from. This contrasts nicely with a technological bent (the four have some inept spies listening in with bugs etc until the new campus for them is prepared), and a lot of mystical elements, from spirit guides and ghostly familiars to the magical fantasy of the shape-changing of Dax.

However it seems to suggest Ali Sparkes is writing boys'-own adventures of children surviving in the wilds from some personal appeal and wish-fulfilment, and less from narrative drive. Luckily, before you start shouting at the author 'look, any further south and west and they'll be in the North Atlantic', the chase ends and a decent, meaty climactic battle can happen.

There is an undercooked element to the whole, and perhaps a little pruning might not have gone amiss, but with a great spread of the mystical, the magical and the unknown the target audience I'm sure should get some engaging reading from Going to Ground. It didn't help me to come to the series starting with the third volume, and it would appear I know the climax to the second one from reading this.

But there is a feeling that the series as a whole should make for good reading. The friends are reasonably well-rounded, their bickering kept to an acceptable minimum and always correctly emotionally motivated, and the writing is on the whole very enjoyable. Their powers and their appreciation of them is always soundly justified, and realistic as well.

I would hope that this third book is a weak link in the series, in which case I could still recommend it to fans of the Shapeshifter cycle. I can't recommend it on its own to the curious, or as a place to begin reading them.

For this age group, I still feel the Artemis Fowl series gets the adventure, science and fantasy elements together, peerlessly. But this series is different enough, and still an enjoyable enough read, to be considered too.

My thanks to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

Since I wrote the above, I have - due to the generosity of the publishers and kind correspondence with Ali Sparkes herself - been allowed to receive the first two volumes in the cycle to play catch-up.

The first, Finding the Fox brilliantly launches you into immediate empathy with Dax, as he encounters the gross-out diet of a fox (dead spiders are nutty, apparently) almost before he realises he has the shape-shifting skill. Finely pitched sentiment and gentle humour lead Dax to the Minack-style setting of the school campus, and the initial adventures he has there. Five stars.

Those adventures clearly take their toll, as FoxDax's whiskers turn from black to white between books, the second of which pitches newcomers into the mix of tightly-knit main characters. Thus, again, great characterisation and sterling work on Dax's adventures and progress result - five stars for Running the Risk too.

I still hold by what I wrote above for book three, with the addition that the is-he-good, is-he-bad question suffers for being a repetition. However I now know the Artemis Fowl reference to be cheap - this saga is very differently pitched, and a great tale in its own right. If the suggested battles ahead maintain the quality, and explain the maternal link that all Children of Limitless Ability have, then - to quote, "Fishes' pants!" - I hope to be there.

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