Review of Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
by Daniel José Older
Would watch the movie, like, yesterday. You get on that, movie-producing people.
Shadowshaper is one of those books I loved from page one, and it only got better. Daniel José Older’s command of character, culture, and language results in a breathtaking contemporary urban fantasy. This book reminds me a lot of Charles de Lint’s work. The protagonist is thrust into a world she doesn’t quite understand, one built on myths and legends only half-shared or half-remembered, and she has to focus her natural talents while trying to learn as much as she can along the way. There are antagonists who seek only power (Wick) as well as the formidable natural foes backing these (the Sorrows). And even your family, if they don’t get it, can stand in your way.
Sierra Santiago loves painting murals. But when she notices someone else’s mural changing, and fading, and when her senile grandfather starts apologizing over and over to her, Sierra starts to wonder what’s up. As more and more people from a group photo with her grandfather start to go missing, only for some of their corpses to start chasing her whenever she hits a party, Sierra soon finds herself embroiled in a decades-old story of love, magic, and betrayal. She has to decide if she can trust Robbie, who knows more about shadowshaping than herself, and which of her friends will be ready to stand with her against those who would take and twist shadowshaping for their own ends.
The first half of the novel, despite being exciting, occasionally feels repetitive. I wish we could get into the intricacies of shadowshaping earlier. There’s something to be said for delaying exposition by interrupting your characters with an attack—but it happens once too often. This novel has decidedly leapt the fence and left the “realism” out of magical realism, yet Older eschews much controlled use of magic in favour of magic happening to and around Sierra and her friends. It isn’t until much closer to the end of the book that Sierra, Robbie, et al actually get to use shadowshaping as a means towards their ends. Also, many of the high-energy moments of this book feel very similar. Lots of monsters or pseudo-monsters chasing or terrorizing our protagonists. I would have liked something that feels a little less episodic or padded and little more like it’s building towards a much more dramatic confrontation.
The intensity and energy in Shadowshaper somewhat makes up for this. In Sierra, Older gives us a protagonist who is fallible while remaining confident and witty. I just loved watching Sierra’s interactions with everyone, from Robbie to her friends to her family. She takes no shit, but at the same time, she is able to admit when she is over her head or out of her depth and in need of assistance or allies. In particular, I love how Sierra and her best friend disagree on numerous things (Bennie is very scientifically-minded and sceptical about the spiritual stuff that Sierra picks up on right away), but when the chips are down and it counts the most, Bennie is there for her, no doubt.
Sierra’s relationship with her family is similarly complex. She loves and cares for her grandfather, even though she discovers he was holding out on her. She loves her mom too—but, as with many teenage girls, they are hot and cold as her mom tries to sway Sierra along certain lines for her own good. My favourite interactions, though, are between Sierra and her brother Juan. He shows up unexpectedly and then just doesn’t go away, and he’s a delightful sidekick to balance out the romance of Robbie.
Older’s diverse cast works so well together. The dialogue is crisp—I particularly like how the non-English words aren’t italicized like they’re some kind of exotic spice sprinkled among the sentences. I can’t comment on the verisimilitude of the way Older depicts the experiences of Sierra and her friends and family, but my friend Christina shared her thoughts on that. As a white folk, I just appreciate every YA novel that isn’t “magical white girl/boy is chosen to save their dystopian society from the plague of sameness adults have forced upon us all”. This is a story which, at its roots, is about family and one’s connections to one’s ancestors. The triumph Sierra arrives at isn’t vanquishing the antagonist but learning about and accepting her role in the continuity of this magic and spirituality.
Can I also say, please, that there is something magical about how Sierra sneaks into a university library to do research. Can I please, please, please have more novels where the protagonist goes to a library? Libraries are valuable sources of information, and it’s so refreshing.