OH. This cover. Possibly the most beautiful I have seen in forever, and a perfect representation of what you will find inside.
Brooklyn teen Sierra Santiago is a talented artist and is looking forward to a great summer. The first party of the season is tonight, and then she’ll spend her months off hanging with friends and painting a huge dragon mural on the wall of the abandoned eye-sore of a building next to the junklot. But everything starts to change when she sees the colours of one mural, a tribute to a friend’s brother who was shot by the police, start to fade, and a tear slide down the face of another. To top it off, the night of the party she is chased down the street by a dead body. Things you don’t tend to see day-to-day, normally.
These fantastical occurrences lead Sierra to the world of shadowshapers – people who call the spirits forth through art and storytelling and music. Sierra had not been aware of her family’s connection to the spirit world, but her brush with danger leads her to question and start digging into the world of the shadowshapers. She find out that not only does her family have a powerful connection to them, but also that someone is using the shadowshaper power for evil, trying to take all their spiritual force, and destroying the ‘shapers and the link to their ancestors.
I am in love. With this story, with Sierra, with Robbie, and with Tee and Izzy and Big Jerome and Manny and the whole cast of characters that make the novel come alive. And maybe a touch with Daniel José Older too, because the magic flowed through his pen.
Older weaves the experiences a person of colour would have in a white dominated society throughout the story, but within the context of an urban fantasy. I am in awe. Police brutality, misogyny, racism, spirituality, diverse culture, as well as the small, not unimportant, everyday bigotries and judgments that all people exhibit. Sierra’s own aunt passes judgment on her niece’s natural afro and Robbie’s darker skin. And while none of these experiences are the main focus of the novel, they serve to enhance the plot and develop the characters.
And Sierra is the type of female main character you want to find in a YA novel. She is strong, self-aware, has a great sense of her history and culture, and adds humour and humility, and a touch of teenage angst. In short, she is authentic.
Sierra’s friends are also such a wonderful cross-section. Older writes these characters effortlessly, almost as if he picked teens off the street and had them describe themselves and their friends. Sierra has lesbian best friends, she has friends with African, Haitian, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican heritage, and all stand out as individuals while mixing together in a great representation of Brooklyn youth. And their dialogue is fresh and hilarious, and the use of slang throughout is perfect. (Well, I assume it is. I’m old, so it definitely isn’t MY vernacular.)
I love that while Sierra is interested in Robbie, she doesn’t let that get in her way. Too many times in YA the romance is made the most important aspect of the heroine’s life. Not here. Sierra finds Robbie hot, but she has other things to do first, like save her family, her heritage, the world.
I think my only complaint is the length of the novel. I wanted to learn more about Sierra and the shadowshapers and magic and the different cultures that were all touched upon, but could have taught me so much more.
This is a must-read for anyone of any age.
Shadowshaper was published June 30th, 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books.