Review of Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older
by Daniel José Older
Hey, it’s your girl Kara, reading the sequel to a book four years after I read the first book, and the real tragedy is that this is not unusual for me! So when you hear me say that I struggled to get into Shadowhouse Fall, it’s not because of the book itself. Rather, I literally forgot everything about the plot of the first book and had to lean on my review and some plot summaries to help me out! Indeed, despite such deficits on my part, the fact that I still enjoyed this book as much as I did is a testament to Daniel José Older’s storytelling.
Sierra Santiago is now the leader of the shadowshapers in New York. She learns this actually makes her the head of Shadowhouse, and that there are other supernatural houses vying for spiritual power. Her main antagonist is the House of Light, led by the Sorrows. They want control over the Deck of Worlds, a literal deck of custom-painted cards that shift to reflect the state of this power struggle and also lends power boosts to the various representatives of the different houses. But the generational gap in Sierra’s understanding of shadowshaper lore makes it difficult for her to mount an effective defence (or offence). She is torn between protecting her people and embracing her destiny. The other forces at play might not give Sierra much of a choice, however.
What struck me immediately about Shadowhouse Fall is the way Older employs vernacular in a seemingly effortless way. This is a dialogue-heavy book, and most of the characters are teens, and they sound like teens (particularly, Black and Latinx teens in NYC). I don’t just mean in terms of vocabulary either—Older has the cadence, the style, down as well. For an older (and whiter) reader like myself, that might make reading the dialogue more challenging, but it’s also rewarding in how it makes the characters come alive and feel far more real than if everyone were speaking a dialect with which I’m more familiar.
In the same way, Older pulls no punches in portraying the brutal racism suffusing these teens’ experiences. There’s police brutality, from random stops to unlawful arrests. But there’s also the everyday humiliation of metal detectors at the entrance to their schools and harassment from security guards. Again, as a white reader this is valuable for me because it reminds me that the racism I engage with largely as a theoretical construct is something that teens like these characters face as part of their everyday lives. When adults like myself dismiss racialized teens because of their youth, we erase their very real experiences.
When I review YA novels, I often say something like, “I didn’t like this but can see how a younger reader would.” I say this because I like to acknowledge that I am often not the target demographic for these books, and I try to reflect that in my review and my rating. Shadowhouse Fall (and its predecessor) is a YA novel I did enjoy, and it’s also one I really hope young adults will enjoy too. Older’s writing style is electric, engaging, and most importantly, never condescending.
As for the plot: well, again, it took me a while to get back into this world given my four-year absence. But I made it! I love how Older drives this narrative through a combination of Sierra’s curiosity and the mounting threats to her and her shadowshapers. The resolution, wherein Sierra attempts a courageous gambit to outwit the Sorrows, is something else—it’s hopeful and inspiring and reminds readers that even when destiny comes calling, you can look destiny in the eye and tell it you’re creating your own path. The ending left me feeling fulfilled, like I was on this journey with Sierra and her allies and now I can watch them grow beyond whatever limitations or strictures Sierra’s forbears thought they could place on this magic or this way of life.
Because that’s ultimately what this book is about: the tension between tradition and innovation. Shadowshaping is hereditary and wrapped up in traditions and beliefs from previous generations. Some of these result in strong, positive connections like how Sierra is growing closer to her mom. Others are more harmful because they seek to circumscribe the choices the shadowshapers can make. As with any culture, the youth will always make their own mark on our practices, and Older makes that very clear here: Sierra is a shadowshaper, but she’s also a teenager navigating herself into adulthood, and that is going to shape the shadowshaping itself.
What an exhilarating ride.