Author: Daniel José Older
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
August’s Diverse YA Book of the Month was Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older and MAN was it a doozy.
Okay, there are two ways I know I’m really into a book:
- I don’t put it down until I finish the thing–usually these are fast-paced stories with few quiet moments
- I start talking like the characters or the voice leaks into my writing–usually something that happens with character-driven stories
With Shadowshaper, it was the second. Not that I couldn’t put it down–in fact, I was extremely impressed that a hugely important scene kicks the third act into motion was actually a quiet, still moment. I’ve mentioned before that I started Shadowshaper in July but put it off until I wasn’t neck-deep in INNATE revisions.
Every writer occasionally struggles with another writer’s voice and style influencing theirs. The nice thing is that these effects are always temporary–once I finish the book, I simply have to wait or start a new one to shake off any influence. And I know my writing well enough to realize when someone else’s craft might be on my pages–and I know my own craft well enough to recognize when my writing is actually IMPROVED by this.
That’s the whole point in reading within your genre!
Okay, back to the review. This is for readers, not just writers.
Our main character, Sierra Santiago, is an average Puerto Rican teen in Brooklyn who happens to come from a family of artist who can infuse spirits into their art. She’s tough but has frightened moments, fiercely loyal and brave and I loved her strong sense of curiosity, which initially drives her straight into the conflict.
She has some of the coolest friends and family. Different people bring the whole book to life with their. I loved Bennie, the best friend. She stands next to her friend even after learning the truth about shadowshapers. I loved Robbie, a fellow shadowshaper and Sierra’s only real teacher.
I loved Neville. Everyone loves Neville.
My heart broke for characters who were hurt, murdered, and used by the antagonist. The antagonist is largely absent, acting through spirits and constructs that attack the characters. I thought this was a spectacular way not to throw too much at the readers while still familiarizing us with the world and magic system.
Oh! And there are anthropologists in this book! As an anthropologist, I am thrilled to see some actual correct representation of anthropologists (since most people think Indiana Jones).
Shadowshaper hits all the main beats but keeps you guessing and learning. As mentioned above, one of the pivotal moments is actually a quiet moment. These slow moments punctuate action scenes–some perilous, some just fun. It is so rare to see a plot like this, I think, in YA. So often, authors are pressured to keep the tension up and the pacing fast so readers don’t get bored. Shadowshaper turns downtime into essential pieces of the plot. No word is wasted.
That’s just magical. I’m blown away by this writing and this plot.
Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that heritage is extremely important in this story and it comes up a lot for Sierra and her friends. Sierra is Puerto Rican, there are conversations with her friends where they talk about where their people come from, the shadowshaping itself is passed down through generations. Sierra, like any teen, struggles with her self-image. When she describes her skin color as, “coffee without enough milk” I, as a white reader, see into a struggle I am often not aware of (this book also made me realize every major body love campaign has had a white face, which is messed up).
The importance of heritage and ancestry layer the plot and the characters with an inter-generational richness and historical depth also not common in the YA that I read.
The magic system is both simple and fantastic, something I strive to achieve in my books! I love the flexibility with making art come to life and can’t wait to see it explored further in the sequel.
This book has one of my highest scores for a reason. Go buy it now (and, if you leave a review before the last Friday in September on my September reading post, you’ll be entered for a free giveaway!).
Paint a mural. Start a battle. Change the world.