Book Review: Shadowshaper
By Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Publishers
This book. Just wow. This book. From the very first chapter, it pulled me right into Sierra’s world: her Brooklyn home and family and friends, the weird supernatural things that were happening around her, her questions, her banter with her friends. I was hooked, and hooked hard. I spent every spare moment turning pages, enjoying the take on fantasy steeped in Caribbean and Latin American mythology, in questions about anthropology and heritage. I stayed up late to finish it.
And when I finished it, I decided I was going to read it again. Immediately.
Now, I’m no stranger to re-reading books I love. It’s the main reason I buy books: to make sure I have access to them the instant I’m wanting to read them again. But… usually I wait longer than a day before I dive in for a re-read. Yes, it was just that good. I’m going to try to write about the things I liked, without gushing. I might not be able to pull it off. I enjoyed it on a level of wanting to go back through my lists of Five Star favorite books on Goodreads, and maybe demote a few to set it apart.
I give up. I’ll surrender to the need to gush.
I liked the way Sierra and her friends and family developed as characters. They were people with loyalties and ordinary days and intertwined histories, before they were Characters Serving the Direction of the Plot. That meant getting to see Sierra as part of a group of friends, with a best friend helping her get ready for a party, a crowd of friends flirting, razzing each other, enjoying a summer night, gossiping. And also seeing Sierra at home in her neighborhood, the avuncular pride of the domino playing old crowd reminiscing about the old country. Characters’ voices, both in dialogue, and in the narrative that stays with Sierra’s thoughts and reactions to people and events, felt real: the importance of family, of heritage, the way the past can shape the future. Their take on the neighborhood felt real and contemporary, too (a few digs at gentrification and race and fancy coffee rang very true, both situationally and to what those characters would notice and comment on.) Also, I really, really liked Sierra’s scenes with her friends and with her grandfather’s friends from the neighborhood. There’s warmth and humor as well as realness.
Making sure the characters were so well established and anchored in their Brooklyn neighborhood as well as keeping cultural traditions part of their lives was what let the more fantastical and supernatural elements work as well as they did. I was really happy to see Sierra stay true to herself, even as magical powers and threats entered the picture and adrenaline started to happen. She’s a teenage girl who’s brave in some ways, certain of her focus on art and devotion to her family and friends, and those things stayed true when the adrenaline and magic and threat got going.
All of which sets Shadowshaper well apart as a great example of solid, interesting fantasy, along with well-crafted YA. And that’s why I went back to enjoy rereading it almost immediately, and am going to be recommending it to just about anyone I know who reads fantasy, or stories with fantastic elements.
As if I didn’t have enough gushing to do about this book, there’s a library in it, and an archivist, and some chewy anthropology questions that let me enjoy thinking about the meta side of things, and larger roles of mythology and immigrant cultures and anthropological study. Yeah.
I don’t think I’m going to read this three times in a row… but I definitely need to buy a copy to keep on my shelf. So should you.