In Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Sierra Santiago is thrust into a world of danger and magic when she discovers that her grandfather is a shadowshaper—a magic user who can channel spiritual energy through art—and she’s got the ability, too. Sierra’s grandfather’s conduit was his remarkable ability to tell stories; Sierra’s is through the vibrant murals she paints on the streets of Brooklyn. But her grandfather had a stroke a year ago, leaving him barely able to speak—Sierra is going to have to uncover the secrets of the shadowshaper magic on her own, a task that would be easier if there weren’t corpses coming to life and chasing her all across Bedstuy.
I really enjoyed this book! Older vividly brings to life Sierra’s neighborhood and family and has a gift for dialogue that makes his characters feel like real teenagers. The shadowshaper magic system is refreshingly original, although I do wish its origins and structure were fleshed out a bit more in the book. That being said, we learn about shadowshaping magic as Sierra does, and part of the fun of the book is her being thrust into the thick of things before she entirely understands the forces at play. Plus, there are hints that more is to be revealed in a sequel.
I feel like I’ve been saying this about a lot of YA I’ve been reading lately (though that’s a good thing!), but my favorite part of the book by far was its heroine, Sierra. She’s talented, capable, brave, maybe just a bit reckless, and spunky as hell. It’s a pleasure to follow her as she works to uncover who is behind Brooklyn’s fading murals, fiends off walking corpses, and learns to wield her powers. I love that she is so confident in her identity and so ready to get angry when getting angry counts—like at her brother and grandfather for keeping shadowshaping from her for so long just because she is a girl.
Other standout components of this book were, for me, the focus on friends who really have your back and the nature of the story’s villain—I guess I can’t say too much more there without giving the plot away. Suffice to say that Older’s villain is one that can be too often found in the real world, though not one that often shows up in literature for young adults, though I think it’s important that it does.
That’s enough vagueness for one review! That brings me to my last two points: One, that this is a book full of people of color wielding magic, and that’s awesome. Sierra’s and Older’s voices are ones we need to hear—the canon of fantasy literature is better for it. Two: I don’t think I’ve ever read such a good, gritty YA urban fantasy.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.