It was hard for me to pick just one book from BEA and BookCon that I was most excited about, but Daniel José Older’s newest YA novel Shadowshaper was high on the list. I’ve followed Older (@djolder) on Twitter for a while now, but other than some of his essays in places like Buzzfeed, I had never really read much of his writing. When I saw that he was going to be a part of the We Need Diverse Books panel at BookCon, shortly followed by a signing, I knew that would be my top priority for the day. And I am glad I made that decision, because getting a copy of Shadowshaper was absolutely worth it.
In many ways, Shadowshaper makes for a perfect summer read, because the characters themselves are on summer vacation, and for me it made the city in summer come alive. The main character in Shadowshaper is Sierra Santiago, a young Puerto Rican girl who lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Sierra is working on a mural, and begins to notice things might not be how they seem in the other murals of her neighborhood. She also befriends a Haitian boy, Robbie, and recruits him to make a mural next to hers. Robbie seems to know much more about what’s going on with the murals, but is reluctant to tell Sierra…at first.
The concept of art and magic being linked is not necessarily a new idea, but Older’s approach and construction of the shadowshaper magic felt unique to me. There is a lot of focused intention behind the magic, no surprise, but it’s also about shadowshapers and spirits working together, and in harmony. The shadowshaper’s creation gives life to these spirits, in a way, allowing them to move and be seen in ways that they cannot be on their own. One of the elders explains: “The true source of shadowshaper magic is in that connection, community, Sierra. We are interdependent.” This is not a kind of magic based on a capitalist, every-man-for-himself mentality, but rather a magic system that is communal, and comes from the creation of art, and partnership between the living and dead. Older infuses this magic into the world Sierra lives in, and in the process brings to life a Brooklyn full of spirits and magic.
Even beyond the fantasy plot (of which I don’t want to give too much away), Shadowshaper does an excellent job at bringing Sierra, her friends, and her world to life. As you would expect with a teenage girl, Sierra has her insecurities. When an aunt makes comments about Sierra’s “wild” hair, Older writes “…the mirror had never been a comfortable place for Sierra.” It’s a passing moment in the story, but really helps round out Sierra to make her a full and complex character. She also experiences street harassment that Older brings to life with all too familiar catcalls from a former classmate. There may be magic happening around her, but that doesn’t mean the realities of everyday life living in the city go away.
A lot of times when readers talk about fantasy, they talk about having an “escape from reality” and like many works that fall under the umbrella of urban fantasy, Shadowshaper feels less like an escape and more like the opening of new possibilities for the world around us. It brings magic and puts it in the hands of teenagers living in Brooklyn, and facing gentrification in their neighborhood. The magic may not fix all their problems, but it will definitely give them a new perspective on the world around them, and a deeper connection to their community and heritage, as they face some of those real world challenges.
Shadowshaper was released this last Tuesday, June 30th. Use Indiebound to find it at a local bookstore, order it online from Powell’s, or request it from your local library!
And if you’re looking for more awesome diverse YA books, Powell’s is currently having a sale just for that!