US Title: Shifter
Target audience: 11+
A young girl becomes a pawn in a bigger political game when her uncanny -- and dangerous -- ability to shift pain between people turns out to be the only weapon she has to save her sister. Fifteen-year-old Nya is one of Geveg's many orphans; she survives on odd jobs and optimism, finding both in short supply in a city crippled by a failed war for independence. Then a bungled egg theft, a stupid act of compassion, and two eyewitnesses unable to keep their mouths shut exposes her secret to the two most powerful groups in the city: the pain merchants and the Healer's League. They discover Nya is a Taker, a healer who can pull pain and injury from others. Trouble is, unlike her sister Tali and the other normal Takers who become league apprentices, she can't dump that pain into pynvium, the enchanted metal used to store it. All she can do is shift it from person to person, a useless skill that's kept her out of the league and has never once paid for her breakfast. When a ferry accident floods the city with injured, the already overwhelmed Takers start disappearing from the Healer's League and Nya's talent is suddenly in demand. But her principles and endurance are tested to the limit when her talent turns out to be the only thing that can save her sister's life.
After reading the above blurb, I was so excited to begin The Pain Merchants. I thought the premise sounded fascinating and also thought-provoking. I found myself wondering about the moral implications of having an ability like the main character Nya. Why would you remove a person's pain just to give it to another person? Can purposefully causing another person pain ever be acceptable or morally right? I had expectations that The Pain Merchants would make me face ethical dilemmas and consider the importance of the most basic human rights.
Sadly, this was not the reading experience that the book provided. Although the premise was interesting, it failed in the execution of the idea. We read the story from Nya's perspective and follow her as she tries to survive in a flawed society. She is an isolated character who also happens to be the heroine of the story. Even though she was likeable, she was not all that interesting. Yet she is the character who is facing the ethical dilemma of whether to use her ability to shift pain from one person to another. I expected her to be more internally tortured by her actions. I don't wish to mislead. Nya knows shifting pain is in principle wrong and she doesn't actually want to do it. But surely, causing physical agony to another person would burn the inner workings of your heart and mind? At least, I know this is what it would do to me. This is where I should have found myself relating most to Nya and I found that I simply didn't find her character fully developed or believeable.
The plot seemed to flow and then stop, almost rhymthically so. At one moment I'd start to think "at last this is getting interesting" and then I'd be sighing because the story had lost my interest again. The most interesting parts of the story were when Nya was connecting with other characters. Danello and Soek were easier to relate to and in some ways admire. I wonder if the story would have been more enjoyable if either of them had been the narrator.
The Pain Merchants is certainly an original concept and Hardy did create an engaging setting for her story. The corrupt world in which Nya tries to hide her shifting ability is well-crafted and portrayed as appropriately brutal. Yet I think at times this worked against the telling of the story, the governance of the city was difficult to understand. There was the Duke, The Pain Merchants, The League and the Luminary all working towards their own ends. I often felt confused as to which person or group followed or controlled and this added to my sense of the plot dragging.
Overall, in The Pain Merchants Hardy explores a fascinating premise yet she fails to execute it in the most gripping and thought-provoking way. At times I liked elements of the story but I failed to relate to the main character. It is unlikely that I will read the next book but I noticed on Amazon there are many positive reviews of this book.