(Please take the time to admire this beautiful cover)
My Rating: 7/10
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.
I think I’ll start this review with a little rant. For as long as I can remember in my history with YA literature, I have rarely come across POC characters. The most popular YA books to date usually have white, straight men/women leading the narrative with maybe a person of color or someone of different sexual orientations somewhere in their friend group. Sometimes these characters from different walks of life are handled well, other times they are handled poorly. In either case, they are never the star of their own narrative and, I must admit, this didn’t bother me. Even as I am writing this, I will admit that I don’t mind if my characters are the standard white, straight man or woman that has come to be expected from this genre as long as the character is appropriately fleshed out. (Mind you, this is coming from a straight African-American woman).
In recent months, however, I starved for a bit of diversity in my books because I became more acutely aware (and troubled) by how little the lack of diversity bothered me. In my quest to discover more diverse titles by diverse authors, I came across Shadowshaper by Daniel Josè Older.
There is a lot to praise about Shadowshaper. Other than sporting a very diverse cast of characters from Sierra Santiago (Puerto Rican) to Robbie (Haitian) to Nydia (Columbian), the story shows the importance of community, friendship and family history throughout the narrative. All these things become very important to the story in regards to character development and the environment of the reimagined New York.
I loved the setting of this book. So much detail went into it, from its commonplace urban decay set against the vibrancy of the art that added life to it. The magical element of the story with the Shadowshapers and their usage of art to give form to spirits was also quite fascinating and added another layer of life to the landscape. Some of my favorite scenes were the instances that the characters interacted with these spirits as they danced around them. This magical element is what really stood out to me in this book.
The plot was also fascinating but admittedly, predictable. I like the amount of intrigue the story set up in this magical world and Sierra’s induction into it. The evil shadows that ended up chasing her throughout the narrative were also described in haunting detail. At the same time, however, I could have guessed what was going on as soon as certain plot elements were introduced. I guessed who was behind everything and Sierra’s particular role in this world way before I should have so after the halfway point, I was waiting for the characters to figure it out on their own. This didn’t necessarily detract from the reading experience but I must admit that I did start to get impatient at certain points.
My main criticism of this book has to be with its pacing. The reader is thrown into the thick of the plot a little too quickly. Before we get a chance to take in the world or the characters, things are happening and they are happening quite fast. I wanted to learn more about this New York and get a sense of how Sierra’s life is on a day to day basis. After the second chapter (or page 12), Sierra already has a mission before we get a feel for any of the major characters. Consequently, though this book sports a very diverse cast, I couldn’t really get a feel for most of them. There are so many characters that are close to Sierra but I didn’t get to know them beyond a surface character trait. Half the time, I couldn’t even be bothered with keeping track of who was saying what because nothing distinguished one voice over the other for me. They were there to help and support the main character which is good but not necessarily enough. This is a little because the story touts the importance of community but didn’t give me a true sense of it.
Overall, however, I am really glad I read this book. It gave me glimpses into a world I haven’t really had that much insight in. I connected with the main character various times throughout the story and the magical element was really creative and fun. My personal qualms with the book have more to do with my greediness as a reader. I just wanted more of everything.
If you want to read a good urban fantasy with a diverse cast of characters I would definitely recommend this.