Book Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Book Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

“Today she looked menacingly into the mirror and said: ‘I’m Sierra María Santiago. I am what I am. Enough.'”- Older

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Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Publisher’s blurb: “Sierra Santiago planned to have an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.

With the help of a mysterious fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one — and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for herself and generations to come.

Full of a joyful, defiant spirit and writing as luscious as a Brooklyn summer night, Shadowshaper marks the YA debut of a brilliant new storyteller.” (Arthur A. Levine Books ©2015)

YA Fantasy. Art. A Diverse Cast. Magic. Spirits. YES PLEASE!

I really enjoyed this book. It has everything a teen fantasy adventure should have: a feisty main character, a fun supporting crew, a (not annoying) love interest, magic and a family legend. This is a great addition to the genre for a couple of different reasons.

First, it’s just a good story. The magic/spiritual structure was a little unclear at first, but it all gets explained, and I loved the combination of music, art, and spirituality. It’s set in real-world Brooklyn, and the magic element somehow feels modern and grounded. The character’s opinions about NYC all felt realistic too; they visit new hipster coffee shops and Coney Island, and occasionally discuss the changes to the neighborhood.

Second, I’m so so happy to see a genuinely diverse cast in a YA fantasy novel. The main character is Puerto Rican, with African and Taíno ancestry. The love interest, Robbie, is Haitian and the supporting cast includes people of every race, and a lesbian couple. It felt very true to Brooklyn, and I was extra pleased with the way Older dealt with social issues.

At some points, they have conversations about who gets to study whom in anthropology, what it feels like to internalize racial prejudice, and police discrimination (one of the secondary character’s brothers was killed by police). Race is a part of the story, but it isn’t the driving force. Gender issues are also present: cat-calling, and patriarchal family expectations play a role in Sierra’s journey. Older weaves the details of real life in seamlessly with a traditional “chosen to save the world” narrative.

If you’re bothered by the “chosen one” trope, the main character might annoy you a little bit. I’m not, so I enjoyed watching Sierra come into her powers and discover herself. The family mystery was well done, and I thought I had figured out the twist at the end, and was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Two sequels have been announced, and there’s also a novella which follows one of the supporting characters after the conclusion of the book.

I would recommend ‘Shadowshaper’ to anyone who enjoys fantasy or YA literature. I suspect it’s going to become one of those books that I bring up in every possible conversation (probably to an annoying extent). I want everyone to know, especially publishers, that it’s possible to write a widely-popular fantasy novel and include diversity in a genuine way. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Summary: Read this book. It’s awesome.

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