I’ve commented before that I give very few five-star reviews. Usually, I expect a book to somehow change my thinking, or how I see the world, in order to rate it a five-star book. As I sat down to write this review I was going to say something like, “While that didn’t happen with Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older, I still…” and then I thought more about it, and decided that Shadowshaper (2015) has changed how I think about the world, mostly because of the time I spent with the main character, Sierra Santiago, who is a hero, an artist and a genuine girl.
As far at the plot goes (and it’s a fast-paced one) in many ways Sierra is a classic Chosen One, a trope that some of us feel has been done and overdone. Like most Chosen Ones, Sierra has a cadre of helpers, and like most Chosen Ones, Sierra’s destiny has been hidden from her. Within a framework that seems, on the surface, pretty familiar, Older has crafted an original and powerful story about art, power, family and heritage.
Sierra lives in Brooklyn. She is an artist, and at the start of summer she has begun painting a mural on the wall of a derelict, unfinished building called the Tower that blocks the neighborhood’s view and functions as an obstacle both physically and symbolically in the story. In the first few paragraphs of the book, Sierra notices that a nearby mural portrait seems to be fading, much faster than it should be, and that it is weeping. The old guys from the dominos club that meets in the Junklot below the Tower encourage Sierra to finish her sweeping dragon mural… and finish it fast. Later, at home, her grandfather, who has been paralyzed by a stroke for the past two years, suddenly talks to her about the shadowshapers. And later that same night, at the first party of summer, a walking dead man chases her and asks her where Lucera is. The story is off and running.
The mystery of the shadowshapers, the identity of Lucera, and the villain’s plan are all important to the story of Shadowshaper, but alongside it is the everyday life of a talented young woman of Puerto Rican heritage, in a neighborhood slowly giving way to gentrification, trying to figure out how she fits in. Sierra is confident and strong most of the time, thinking at one point that her Fro is like a force field; but in reflective moments she remembers that she once described herself as “the color of coffee without enough milk.”
In the sudden darkness of her bedroom, the words had lingered as if imprinted in her forehead; not enough.
The worst part about it, the part she couldn’t let go of, was that the thought came from her. Not one of the teachers and guidance counselors whose eyes said it again and again over sticky-sweet smiles. Not from some cop on Marcy Avenue or Tia Rosa. It came from somewhere deep inside her. And that meant that for all the times she’d shrugged off one of those slurs, some little tentacle of them still crawled its way toward her heart.
The remarks, the looks, the slurs that Sierra has internalized are like the yuppie bakeries and upscale coffee houses that are creeping into the neighborhood, or even, a little bit, like the tower, a monstrosity that was abandoned partially completed when the developers ran out of money. Without saying much more than that, Older lets us see a project where plenty of money changed hands and none of it came into this community, this neighborhood — but the rotting building is still there.
Mostly, though, Shadowshaper is about the shadowshapers, and Sierra learns a lot from Robbie, a Haitian student who is also an artist, and who explains how the shapers use creative forms, drawing, painting, sculpting, music and even storytelling, to create a shape for shadows of the dead to borrow. In return, the shadows will help the shaper, as we see in a long glorious scene with Robbie and Sierra playing hide-and-seek, shadowshaper style, in the woods. We also see Robbie’s murals, enlivened by the shadows, dancing on the walls of a club. Clearly Sierra’s tower mural will play an important part in stopping whatever it is that is killing the previous generation of shapers, and searching for the mysterious Lucera.
As I mentioned, Sierra has a circle of friends, and the witty banter in this book is one of its joys. Many YA books create snappy dialogue and witty badinage between characters, and it’s amusing in a movie or sitcom kind of way. Sierra’s friends are smart and irreverent, and their back-and-forth sounded real. I could imagine hearing this kind of talk behind me at a music festival, or one aisle over in the comic book store. Her friends are not all the same, and not all on-board with the supernatural issues either. One of the strongest and saddest scenes in the book comes when the group has an argument about whether to go follow Sierra’s lead.
“I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of possibilities,” Izzy said as the train doors slammed shut and the train started back up again. “I mean, I’m sure I’m not the only one that thinks this whole thing sounds completely cra—“
“No.” Sierra’s voice sounded cold and faraway, even to herself. Crazy. It was the same word Maria and Tia Rosa flung at Grandpa Lazaro. The same word anyone said when they didn’t understand something. Crazy was a way to shut people up, disregard them entirely.
There are a couple of elements to Shadowshapers that I did not understand at all, specifically the Sorrows, which, while creepy, were baffling to me. I hope this is because there is going to be a sequel where they would play a larger role. The book is stunningly visual, and I would love to see it made into a movie… maybe. With Hollywood’s track record, I fear that a big commercial studio would cast Elle Fanning as Sierra and give her one token Puerto Rican friend. Maybe an independent movie; yes, that could work.
As with any Older book, the prose sizzles with neon visuals and hums with poetry and music. Shadowshaper invites you to read it quickly. I did read it quickly, but then several days later I found myself thinking about Sierra and her experiences, and I will probably read this again. Sierra may have changed how I see the world.
I’m always up for a good art-as-magic book, and Shadowshaper (2015) is a very good art-as-magic book. It’s difficult to not just write “What Marion said!”, but I’ll try to find some new ground to cover with my review. I do agree with everything Marion said, though!
Sierra is a sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl living in Brooklyn. She learns that several people from her family and neighborhood are Shadowshapers, magicians who can channel spirits into their artwork, thereby giving those spirits the ability to interact with the physical world. Visual art is the most prominent medium in the novel, but music and storytelling are also ways of accessing this power. Knowledge of shadowshaping has been kept from Sierra, but now she has to find out about it, and fast. A corrupted magician is stalking the shadowshapers, and pursuing Sierra too, thinking she knows more than she does.
Meanwhile, she’s also dealing with non-magical issues: racism from outside the community, colorism within it, family relationships, body image, and a sweet budding romance. Daniel José Older, though an adult male writer, captures an authentic teenage-girl voice here that never rang false.
One small touch that I appreciated was that Older addresses the question of how one fights evil when one is a teenager without a car, or even a magic broomstick. Without bogging down the narrative with it, he has Sierra sometimes needing to ask for rides (which allows us to get to know her godfather, a vivid character in his own right), and sometimes needing to take the bus or train. It adds to the New York feel, too.
Shadowshaper is a positively exuberant book, bubbling over with imagery, action, music, witty dialogue, and heart. It moves quickly and wastes no detail. It made me think, it made me cheer, and most importantly, it made me very happy I already had Shadowhouse Fall on hand.