When I heard there was a young-adult, fantasy novel coming out that’s set in Brooklyn with a Latina as its protagonist, I HAD to read it. But for some reason, the first couple pages didn’t grip me and I avoided purchasing and reading it for a long time. After rediscovering that I own a library card (yes, I sometimes forget. I’m not great at borrowing things), I rented it on Overdrive. Here’s what I thought.
Synopsis from Goodreads:
Sierra Santiago planned to have an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.
With the help of a mysterious fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one — and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for herself and generations to come.
Full of a joyful, defiant spirit and writing as luscious as a Brooklyn summer night, Shadowshaper marks the YA debut of a brilliant new storyteller.
I was excited to read Shadowshaper when I first heard of it. I was happy that the protagonist is a person of color and that the story is set in a part of New York City I’m familiar with — Brooklyn. I was overjoyed that I recognized some spots Older described.
The story is face-paced and plot-driven and very entertaining. There’s never a dull moment. The story and its magic system contains bits of Caribbean culture and folklore that made me giddy to see in a young-adult, fantasy novel. The magic system is linked to ancestry and to people’s artistic abilities, which I loved but also made me a little scared because I’m a wuss who gets shaky at the hint of a ghost.
This magic system made for some wonderful and scary scenes in the story. My favorite was when Sierra is at a club with Robbie, the Haitian guy she’s interested in. They are dancing and the spirits and Robbie’s creations are moving along with them. I love how that scene is described. It made me think of the basement parties I attended in high school and the clubs I sometimes go to. Just a nice vibe.
Speaking of Sierra, I love her pluck and tenacity. She’s brave and easy to relate to. Her family is from Puerto Rico and her ancestors are African and Taino, Native Indians who lived on the Caribbean isles. She is curvy and she wears her hair in an afro, which her aunt criticizes her for. She has to put up with catcalls from guys on the street and with her grandfather’s sexism. Though this annoys and stresses her at first, I appreciated that she becomes more comfortable with who she is and how she is as the story progresses.
She is a foil to her mother and aunt, who both try to squash their heritage in order to fit in. I appreciated that this was included in the story because many times immigrants think it’s better to fully assimilate into mainstream society when they relocate to the U.S. in order to be better accepted. They believe they have to shun their background to do so instead of taking pride in who they are. Reading those tense moments between Sierra and her aunt made me reflect on an internship I had where I was told by a fellow Caribbean native that I should get more White American friends so I can lose my accent and sound like everyone else. (**rolls eyes**)
But much as I enjoyed the book, I kept wishing while reading that the story pushed a bit deeper. There was potential for it so I wondered if the issues hinted at in this book will be given more attention in later books. I assume this is a series because this book seems like a setup for others. When I started the story, I assumed that the prevalence of gentrification in inner cities would be what the story is about. It’s touched on throughout the story, but it wasn’t central to the plot as I assumed it would be and that disappointed me. However, another favorite moment from the story is when Sierra is reflecting on how much her neighborhood has changed. It’s changed so much that the White people who now live there look at her as if she is the outsider, making her feel like one.
I also think the plot progressed too quickly and that the side characters and the villain could use more development. They fell a little flat for me. I certainly wished Robbie had more development. I was curious about him since he knows more than Sierra and since what threatens Sierra and her family also threatens him and his. I’d like to see how his family is affected by the issues in the story.
Okay, that wasn’t a great review but the story is entertaining and fun so I recommend it. I gave it 2.5 stars before, but I’ve bumped it up to three. I wasn’t very satisfied with the story when done because it didn’t deliver on what I wanted, or rather, what I assumed it was about. Also it wasn’t as descriptive as I wanted it to be. I think I would have been more satisfied with it if I hadn’t assumed so much. I’d like to try more of Older’s work.
Other thoughts on the novel and an author profile
- Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older (splteenmachine.com)
- Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older — Review (whatkarareads.com)
- ¡Mira Look!: Author’s Corner: Daniel José Older (teachinglatinamericathroughliterature.wordpress.com)