Author: Daniel Jose Older
Urban Fantasy | 304 pages | Published by Arthur A. Levine Books
As a teenager, I read dozens of Young Adult books that I absolutely adored because they gave me exciting and fantastical perspectives of life or what life could be. Stories like Harry Potter, Twilight, Percy Jackson, Chronicles of Narnia, were particularly important to me because I was always drawn to speculative fiction. But despite how much I loved these tales, in the back of my mind was a persistent disappointment and sadness that none of these characters looked like me.
I need not further stress the urgent need for diverse characters in the publishing industry, but it is even more urgent in children’s and Young Adult literature. This issue is complex and multifaceted; however, writers like Daniel Jose Older will be essential in rectifying the issue.
Sierra Santiago is a refreshingly bold and colorful character in Older’s urban fantasy, “Shadowshaper.” We come to know Sierra as a plucky, funny, cool teenager with immense artistic talent. She is strong and quick-witted and will come to be the boyfriend-rescuing hero of our story. In short, Sierra as a character is excellent, the kind of character I wanted to read about as a teenager.
The novel opens with Sierra painting an enormous mural on the wall of an abandoned building in Brooklyn, and we can’t help but like her and her hilarious cast of friends. Their dialogue is quite funny, and surprisingly realistic in its use of slang and informal vernacular. As the story progressed, I found myself wanting the group of friends to reunite so I could literally laugh out loud or giggle at their exchanges. Sierra’s interactions with her friends and family were one of the best things about the novel, honestly. It was these relationships that carried the story, because the plot itself was not as exciting as I hoped it would be, thought it’s satisfying enough.
The narrative takes us through a vibrant Brooklyn that is as much a character as it is setting. Brooklyn is a city under attack both by gentrification and the villain, Jonathan Wick, who is a blatant metaphor for cultural appropriation if there ever was one. He isn’t the most compelling villain, but serves as a relevant analog to white Americans’ appropriation of cultures they don’t truly appreciate or understand.
The titular “shadowshaper” is someone who can channel the energy of spirits through storytelling, singing, but most importantly, painting and drawing. The energy of the spirits fills these works of art and the shadowshaper is then able to command the spirits to do his or her bidding. Sierra’s family has a long history with the magic of shadowshaping, and thus is the focal point of all the drama and excitement in this relatively short narrative. I must admit that even though it was immensely gratifying to see a young Puerto Rican girl use and be surrounded by magic, the plot was a little on the predictable side, and not as grand in scale as I like my fantasy stories to be.
All told, the story ends on a satisfying note, and relatively quickly so that we can’t help but smile at the magical ride through Brooklyn which Daniel Jose Older just took us. I definitely recommend “Shadowshaper” to young readers and will be reading more of Older’s work in the future.