By: Daniel José Older
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication Date: June 30th, 2015
Cassandra Clare meets Caribbean legend in SHADOWSHAPER, an action-packed urban fantasy from a bold new talent.
Sierra Santiago was looking forward to a fun summer of making art, hanging out with her friends, and skating around Brooklyn. But then a weird zombie guy crashes the first party of the season. Sierra’s near-comatose abuelo begins to say “No importa” over and over. And when the graffiti murals in Bed-Stuy start to weep…. Well, something stranger than the usual New York mayhem is going on.
Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order’s secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick’s supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family’s past, present, and future.
So I’m going to be fully honest here. I read this book not because I picked it up at a bookstore, or found it and loved the cover, or anything like that. I ended up reading it for a class on YA Literature and Resources that I’m taking. I just loved it so much that I decided to also put a review up.
Funnily enough, I had once dreamed of writing a similar book about magical graffiti artists. But Daniel José Older wrote Shadowshaper so well I have no urge to compete. Sierra is a fun, spunky and infinitely relatable character, and the story is a fast-paced and compelling one. The intense moments are balanced out by solid moments of friendship and humor, and the love story was present, but didn’t dominate.
This book also has a very fun, modern vibe. It takes place in New York, for one thing, mostly in small salsa clubs and out-of-the-way corners of the city. Sierra is a totally modern badass who rocks her afro and paint-spattered clothes. Her group of friends is nothing but eclectic, from Bennie to Big Jerome to Izzy and Tee, and they’re all fiercely loyal. But at the same time, Sierra is very aware of her roots as a Puerto Rican, and those roots are integral to the plot. They both ground the book, and allow for the magical aspects. For instance, I loved how the magic was presented as a kind of ancestor worship, from Robbie’s protective tattoos of his Taino ancestors, to the ability to preserve the souls of the dead in paintings.
I also, like I said, enjoyed the friendship vibe. Sierra is almost never alone the entire book–she has her friends, she has her family, she has Robbie. Her friends automatically band together to help her, no questions asked. And, although Robbie is supportive and a great teacher of shadowshaper things, he doesn’t try to save Sierra (in fact, there are a few times at the beginning of the book where he really fails trying to do so). Their relationship is very equal, it feels, or maybe tilted a bit in Sierra’s favor. There’s also a lesbian relationship between two of her friends that is never questioned, which I appreciated. It was there, but not in an ‘oh, I can be a diverse writer and have diverse characters, look here’s an LGBTQ+ couple’. Rather, it was ‘here’s a couple, and they happen to be lesbians, so what’.
What I really appreciated was that there were some subtle critiques of culture hidden in what seemed to be a rather fun romp. I appreciated the complaints of Sierra and her friends at all the hipster coffee shops invading their area of NY. I similarly thought that it was very interesting that the villain is a white male professor, an anthropologist to be exact, who thinks that he can come in and take the Caribbean magic system and shape it to his own (spoiler: evil) agenda. There was also an interesting point made about how Sierra’s grandfather had invited said evil professor to learn about shadowshaping, and even had the great idea to induct him into the society in the first place, because he didn’t think any of his female descendants (AKA Sierra) were capable of being Shadowshapers. The fact that Sierra’s grandmother turns out to be an incredible badass spirit-handler just evens out the petty patriarchy of her grandfather, I felt.
I did have a few minor complaints, though. In class several people mentioned that they weren’t impressed with the writing, and I have to agree. Although the story is a fantastic one, I feel as if the author was almost trying too hard to write on the level of YA. The plot was almost formulaic, and the way it was written felt simplistic at times. I feel as if the great ideas weren’t expressed as well as they could have been, because the author was trying to ‘dumb down’ his language.
I’m also somewhat wary about rumors of a sequel. Although there were some aspects of Shadowshaper that were mentioned, but not explored (racial/ethnic tensions and police violence among them), I thought Shadowshaper was an excellent stand-alone, and I’m worried that the author is forcing something in trying to make it a series.
BUT, that being said, I did really enjoy Shadowshaper, and I’m especially looking forward to getting a signed copy at YALLfest!
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Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.