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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.

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“For the first time in his life, he felt that time was going faster then he wished it to and he could no longer take refuge in his dreams. The wheel of fortune had started to turn, and this time he could not stop it.” -Zafón

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The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Publisher’s blurb: “It’s wartime, and the Carver family decides to leave the capital where they live and move to a small coastal village. But from the minute they cross the threshold of their new home, strange things begin to happen. In that mysterious house still lurks the spirit of Jacob, the previous owners’ son, who died by drowning.

With the help of their new friend Roland, Max and Alicia Carver begin to explore the strange circumstances of that death and discover the existence of a mysterious being called the Prince of Mist–a diabolical character who has returned from the shadows to collect on a debt from the past. Soon the three friends find themselves caught up in an adventure of sunken ships and an enchanted stone garden–an adventure that will change their lives forever.” (Little, Brown and Company ©2010)

I. Loved. This. Book.

I read Zafón’s most famous novel, The Shadow of the Wind, a few years ago and completely fell in love with his writing style. The Prince of Mist is intended to be a YA novel, but it has the same spooky, gothic vibe and it was totally engrossing and entertaining for this adult.

This was a quick, but genuinely scary read. Zafón has a gift for writing haunting, eerie stories that get under your skin. I don’t think I’d classify this as a horror novel, necessarily, but it skirts that line. It’s not graphic or gory in any way, it’s more an unsettling type of fear. It’s atmospheric and plays on a number of different phobias, from ghosts to clowns.

One thing I particularly enjoy about Zafón’s writing is his ability to portray realistic families, combining mundane day-to-day details with poignant observations about life. The relationships feel authentic, as does the narration of 13-year-old Max. I was especially pleased with the maturity of the main character; Max is allowed to be a young teenager (a little reckless) but is also philosophical and complex. I think the nuanced portrayal of a teenage boy is important- he can still be thoughtful and caring while on his Goonies-like adventure. The physical action is well balanced with the psychological and emotional pieces.

I’m trying not to give anything away, but I will say that the antagonist is super creepy and I thought the ending was well done. The plot is fairly simplistic, but still suspenseful.

It’s hard to say anything else without spoiling the mystery of this book, so I’ll just leave it at this: read it.