Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older
Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper was one of the best books of 2015 — not “best YA books” but best books of all categories. It featured an engaging, authentic female hero, an original magical system, mundane issues as well as magical ones, and a distinctive voice and sensibility. 2017’s sequel, Shadowhouse Fall, shows no second-book slump in this series.
Sierra Santiago is mastering her skill as a shadowshaper, an ability that melds spirit contact with art, and adjusting to her new role as the Lucera, but things are not calm or quiet in her neighborhood. A powerful rival group called the Sorrows still pursues her. Early in the book, a strange white girl who seems to be in league with the Sorrows gives Sierra a deck of cards called the World Deck and a disconcerting message, “The Deck is in play.” Shortly after, the girl is hit by a police car and then disappears, and it is obvious that “the Deck is in play” has serious consequences for Sierra and her team of shadowshapers.
Sierra discovers that the Sorrows call themselves the House of Light, with entities who are like the major trumps in tarot: a Hound of Light, a Sorcerer of Light, and so on. It turns out that shadowshaping is called the Shadowhouse, with corresponding abilities and roles. The Sorrows insist that the Shadowhouse is descended from them, that Sierra as Lucera must join them, but Sierra doesn’t trust their version of events. Besides, they wave their arrogance and racism like a banner. As she and her friends delve into the mystery of the cards, the story becomes more complex. There are several other Houses emerging from the Deck, and they are all in a struggle for power.
Sierra is also helping her friends learn how to use their shadowshaper powers. She tries to help them navigate their relationship issues… and her own, as she deals with her confusion over her feelings for Robbie, and new feelings for Pulpo, aka Anthony, the bass player in her brother’s band. Sierra, Tee, Izzy and Jerome also face day-to-day issues at a public high school that treats them, not like students there to learn, but inmates who need to be controlled.
Older does not shy away from institutionalized racism, either in the school or on the streets, where the young people are routinely harassed by law enforcement and one cadre of spirits that helps Sierra is made up entirely of innocent youths shot by police. The increasingly harsh response of the cops to peaceful, organized protests, and the power the kids have, with their defiance and their social media, is a big part of Shadowhouse Fall’s story, and a powerful part. Sierra’s struggle to be seen and heard in the mundane world is not different than in the spirit world.
An interesting character for me is Mrs. Rollins, the white history teacher. She sees herself as an ally of the youth, but demands a one-way level of respect from her class, and her blindness to her own racism and privilege leads her to make things worse when she tries to help.
This story unfolds rapidly, shifting smoothly from the mundane to the magical, from spirit battles to bogus arrests, from jail cells to parks. The confrontations build naturally, and the pacing is so good that the story never dragged. Along the way even Sierra has everyday-life things to worry about, like her boyfriend dilemma or what to wear for her Halloween costume.
I especially liked the Deck of Worlds. When Sierra first looks at it, most of the cards are blank, smeared with a reddish color like paint. As the story progresses and other Houses begin to emerge, their images appear through the paint. It is evocative and scary.
I also loved, as always, Older’s perfect dialogue and the use of music throughout the book. Shadowhouse Fall has a virtual soundtrack with Izzy’s King Imperious rap and Juan’s band; the rapid-fire banter of the kids is a soundtrack as well. Once again Brooklyn comes to glorious, noisy life.
The book is entertaining and sets things up perfectly for the next book in the SHADOWSHAPER series. It also takes a straight-on look at racism and bigotry. Is the school right that the metal detectors are for the kids’ safety? Are the kids right that they are treated like criminals? Are they going about things the right way, when one of the best ways to shadowshape is to create graffiti? What about the biases Sierra’s group of friends show even among themselves? These are all serious questions that you can’t escape while you’re reading Shadowhouse Fall, but this tale isn’t bogged down. These things are part of life, and the magic in this book is not divorced from the rest of life.
I recommended Shadowshaper and I strongly recommend Shadowhouse Fall. It’s exciting, original, and honest, all written with power, imagination and wit. Now I’m pacing the floor waiting for the next installment.
Sierra Santiago has liberated the art of shadowshaping; it was once a secret kept closely by a small group of men, but now she has initiated all her friends and even her mom. They are experimenting with their newfound powers and figuring out what art forms they mesh best with. But this surge in shadowshaper power is perceived as a threat by the rival House of Light, headed by the creepy, glowing Sorrows we met in the previous book. Tangled up in all of this is the Deck of Worlds, an eerie tarot that shows all the figures on the Shadow side as frightening monsters.
The title of Shadowhouse Fall (2017) has a double meaning. First, it’s literally fall, a few months after the summer of Shadowshaper, so now the characters are back in school, with all the issues that brings. But the Shadowhouse (the shadowshaper faction) is in danger of falling if the Sorrows or another supernatural group get their way.
Daniel José Older expands on the racial themes that were touched on in Shadowshaper. We see Sierra’s overpoliced high school, complete with a teacher who really wants to be “woke” but won’t actually listen to what her students need. We see protests, sometimes met with disproportionate force. And when Sierra and her friends are out doing their Scooby Gang thing, there’s always the danger of running into the cops, who are likely to misunderstand what a group of black and brown kids are doing on the streets or in the park late at night — especially since they can’t explain what they’re really doing. The revealed history of the Sorrows and the Shadowhouse, too, turns out to have racial tensions at its root.
Meanwhile, Sierra is feeling ever more alone as competing crises and responsibilities pile up around her. She frequently has to lie to one friend to help another, and just when she really needs allies, it seems like everybody is mad at her and there’s nowhere to turn. Older portrays the mounting tension perfectly, leading up to a nail-biting climax where the reader has no idea what Sierra is planning or whether it will work.
I had a few small quibbles this time around. One, the change in Robbie’s character seemed too obviously a plot device to create additional drama. He did have a tendency to disappear in the first book, but there was a reason for it; he wasn’t just flaky. The mention of Manny’s spirit not having appeared to Sierra also felt like a retcon; he did show up, during the climactic battle in Shadowshaper.
However, Older expanded the world and plot so much in Shadowhouse Fall that I didn’t mind these small issues much. I’d say it averages out to the same rating. I can’t wait for the next SHADOWSHAPER CYPHER book, Shadowshaper: Legacy — it’s scheduled for January 2020.
Also, this one made it onto my “Cute Hellhounds” shelf at Goodreads, for those of you who like that sort of thing. :)
So what you’re saying is that I need to read these books once I get my life straightened out again. :D
Yes, that is what I’m saying.