So, I met Daniel José Older in a discussion about writing, and his style was so down to earth I knew I had to read some of his work. I nabbed this one as soon as I spotted the cover.
Shadowshaper is the story of Sierra Santiago, a high school student looking forward to a summer hanging out with friends and painting murals. As soon as the summer starts, she’s swept up in a battle that nearly tore her family apart years ago, a battle that’s been kept from her all her life. A magical battle involving her art and her heritage.
Three words I would use to describe this novel and its heroine: Strong. Proud. Real.
Sierra is strong and not afraid to show it, and that shines in the prose even though it’s written from a 3rd person perspective (that’s not a knock, by the way. I loved that. I miss 3rd person so much in YA).
The plot was also strong. Older knows how to keep his novels lean and each scene served multiple purposes to develop all aspects of his story. The only thing I wasn’t so sure about in this novel was Sierra’s emotional arc. I guess she went from being unsure of her powers to being an accomplished user of them, but to be honest she’s already a pretty great and well-balanced character at the start of the book.
Sierra is proud of herself, her talents and her heritage. Shadowshaper brings Caribbean legends to New York City and stands with them, giving movement to both art and the dead. I am by no means an expert in Caribbean legends, folklore or culture, so coming at it as an outsider I can say that I enjoyed not just the magic that Older put together, but the way he stood by it. It’s not a creepy horror show act, it’s not whitewashed voodoo, it’s fresh and it’s proud to be what it is.
Speaking of proud, a lot of people have called Shadowshaper a kind of message-fiction. I’m going to be honest, I don’t really see a lot of ‘message’ in here when I look at Sierra’s emotional arc, because the message definitely isn’t, ‘It’s okay to not be white.’ Shadowshaper goes waaaaaaay beyond that. Race politics definitely play a role in the novel, as Sierra has to deal with people who are suspicious just because she’s got dark skin and a fro, not to mention stand up to her racist aunt. But the book isn’t about Sierra learning that her body is okay. From the beginning she’s a fan of her fro: “She loved it the way it was, free and undaunted.” She’s got complaints about her body, but I’d like to meet the teen that doesn’t. Shadowshaper proudly paints a corner of the world where nobody’s white and nobody needs to be told that that’s okay. And I love that.
I’ve never been to New York. I’ve relied on my sister’s descriptions and the media to give me an impression of the city, and here’s what I’ve got:
-black people in harlem, white people everywhere else.
Yeah, my sister really, really loves Broadway.
I’ve long known in theory that New York is an incredibly diverse place where people from every country in the world converge and bring pieces of their own culture with them. But that’s not the part of New York that we see in other urban fantasy or tv shows like How I Met Your Mother. Older brings us the part of New York that we know is there, but we tend to forget, just like he brings us the story of people we know are there, but tend to forget. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by not giving the places and people he describes more space in our public forums.
But back to technical developments. The writing feels real, the places feel real. The style Older uses is bare bones, which moves us from scene to scene with stark efficiency. I usually prefer a more lyrical style but Older definitely kept the pace up.
You will like this book if: you like urban fantasy, you like diverse casts, you like non-western magic systems, you like strong heroines.
You may not like this book if: you don’t like urban fantasy.