SHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Older
Paint a mural. Start a battle. Change the world.
This is the author’s first YA book, and it’s urban fantasy at its finest. When I classify this book as an urban fantasy, I mean that the city setting of the novel is almost a secondary character. Brooklyn is alive and critical to this story; I loved the neighborhood descriptions. From an all-age Latin dance club, to the community newspaper offices, to Coney Island, I understood how much the lead character, Sierra, loves her city. And I could relate to the protagonist’s pain as she watched her streets slowly change and become more gentrified. The setting in this book jumped off the page, and wrapped me in the textures and energy of New York.
The book developed a fantastic new magic system called shadowshaping, infusing spirits into artworks to make the art come alive. The author expanded on the history and laws of the magic system gradually, and by the end of the book I believed. It seems perfectly logical for a secret society to be bonding the spirits of their late family and friends into public murals. I think this is some of the best magical realism I’ve read in a long time.
More importantly, this book is packed with outstanding character diversity. Sierra is Afro-Latina and her Hispanic family is realistically depicted. I appreciated how the author remembered to include all the extended family dynamics so common in Hispanic culture. Sierra’s family relationships are complicated, she fights with her aunt who likes to downplay their race, and she worships her godfather who embraces it. She even respects and reveres the local Hispanic business owners who serve as her community elders. All these characters reminded me of people I have encountered in my own life. Sierra’s friends are just as interesting and diverse, including two of her best friends who are involved in a same-sex relationship with each other.
I gave this book 4 stars on Goodreads and honestly I wanted to give it more, but there were a few murky plot issues that kept me from giving that last star. It’s a perfect pick for even younger teens. There are some scary moments and one make-out session between Sierra and her boyfriend, but it’s not extreme. For a reading group looking for a good book to start a discussion about writing inclusive characters and for weaving strong, but non-preachy messages into young adult fiction, this book is a great fit. And it’s perfect if you’re craving a slightly spooky read for a cold night.
Sierra Santiago planned the perfect summer vacation. She would paint a huge mural next to the junkyard near her Brooklyn home. She would hang out with her friends. She would finally talk to the new cute guy from school, a fellow artist named Robbie. But the murals in her neighborhood begin to move, and weep tears. Later a reanimated corpse crashes the first big high school party of the summer, and he seems to be looking for Sierra and Robbie. Sierra’s in trouble and Robbie knows more than he’s saying. Everyone is leaving Sierra in the dark about a troubling family secret, and that could get her killed.
Sierra and Robbie are shadowshapers, people who can infuse ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. And someone is systematically killing off all the shadowshapers to gain their powers. It’s up to Sierra to stop the killer. To do that, she must decipher her grandfather’s riddle and defeat an army of reanimated dead. If she fails, it might mean the end of all the shadowshapers and the enslavement of the spirit realm under the power of a madman.
4 thoughts on “What We’re Reading: SHADOWSHAPER”
Wow. I’ve heard about this book, but haven’t actually looked into it to find out more about it. Your review was the first opportunity for me to do this – and it sounds like a really intriguing story. And an art-centric magic system?? Must add this to my TBR list. 🙂
There is a lot going right with this novel. The world building is really well done. You will find some nice surprises in this magic system. And I think this might evolve into a series. Although there is no buy book two push at the end, the world building and characters are big enough to carry more books. Let me know what you think of it.
Nothing wrong with 4 stars. Sounds good.
Thanks, Sue. I always feel badly for the writer if I can’t give their book five stars, and I guess I shouldn’t. Four stars is pretty darn good too. : )