When Daniel José Older’s book was announced and the cover finally revealed, the already considerable buzz it had been picking up online increased tenfold, and since then the enthusiasm has been a roiling avalanche, crashing down onto the internet, the industry, and the book community as a whole. Here was a YA novel with a gorgeous cover, featuring a young woman of color with natural hair, promising a book that wouldn’t gloss over or shy away from the reality of the world: diversity, culture, representation, and more. Needless to say, the question on everyone’s mind was: is the book good. Does it hold up to the promise it makes on the cover, and in the copy?
I’m happy to report, that yes, it absolutely does.
Sierra Santiago is a young Puerto Rican girl living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and attending Octavia Butler High School, doing what young girls do: classes, texting, hanging with friends, wild parties, and generally trying to figure out who she wants to be. She’s got a cadre of friends: Bennie, Izzy and her girlfriend, Tee. She’s got her eyes on a young man in her class, Robbie, who’s always doodling in his notebook, which she likes, though she agrees with her friends that something’s kind of weird with him. And when Sierra’s not doing all this, she’s painting. Sierra is an artist, and her family friend Manny has her working on a mural, smack-dab on an abandoned apartment project in the middle of her neighborhood, using art to cover up the concrete sheen of failed gentrification.
But things are getting weird for Sierra. Her Grandpa Lazaro, recovering from a stroke and usually quiet, has started apologizing to Sierra and telling her to save the shadowshapers, though from whom he can’t or won’t say. And the murals around her neighborhood depicting friends, family members, and neighbors have started changing; Sierra even sees one weeping. It all comes to a head one night at a party when she runs into Robbie, and a corpse who used to be a friend of Manny’s shows up and attacks. Robbie runs, thinking it’s after him. But once the thing sees Sierra, it zeroes in, and she only barely gets away. Something’s got to give; Sierra needs answers and so she goes to find them.
Sierra learns she’s from a long line of magicians, or shadowshapers, who have the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead and infuse them into artwork, music, and stories. Someone else, someone from outside the family, has suborned this ability, however, and they’re not only out to get rid of every other shadowshaper they can: they think Sierra knows the ultimate secret of shadowshaping, and they will therefore stop at nothing to take it from her. Sierra is going to have to figure out, it becomes clear, how to access this ability within her, and who’s trying to kill her—if only she can get her family to tell her.
Older’s work before this includes Half-Resurrection Blues (2015) and a short story collection, Salsa Nocturna (2012), which take place in the same world as Shadowshaper. He is in fine, fine form with this novel. He has his usual potency with prose, a knack for quick, sharp, and funny-as-hell dialogue—the kind that feels as if it could be found between any two kids in Brooklyn at this very moment. His aptitude for cutting through bullshit, and addressing heavy issues, is high, yet, for all the important topics covered in Shadowshaper, Older never talks down to the reader. Nor does he avoid the truly awful ways our world can be sometimes. To top it off, Older provides his world with a truly tremendous protagonist in Sierra: fierce, vulnerable, funny, smart, and curious, she also gets hurt, pushed, and shoved—and keeps getting up and keeps coming back. She’s proud of her heritage, proud of herself, and not only navigates a family that tries to keep her in the dark because of her gender, but also a world that puts so much pressure on a young woman of color with big, kinky hair to conform to a certain ideal of behavior. At one point, Sierra, fed up with the way in which the world and her family and friends are trying to make her be everything she’s not, looks in the mirror and says, “I’m Sierra Maria Santiago. I am what I am. Enough . . . More than enough.” And it’s as powerful as hell.
While there is a supernatural element to this novel, its events take place in what is decidedly “our” world, and with this comes the bad and the good: in the pages of Shadowshaper, Sierra and her friends find themselves face-to-face with a number of issues that Older tackles head on, exploring their ramifications not just for the characters, but the novel’s communities as well. These all-too-real challenges include gentrification, white privilege (and power in a broader sense), cultural appropriation, heritage and culture and tradition—as well as the position a young person has in society, the ever-changing tapestry of that society, and the place that art and creation occupy in the community around you. That Older manages to write a novel that doesn’t collapse under the sheer weight of so many important threads, but actually manages to tie them neatly together using its story as a lens for discussion, is astonishing.
This “real” world, however, exists atop and adjacent to a supernatural one, and there’s a wonderful blending of both. The villain of the piece, for example, is literally gentrifying the practice of shadowshaping, and appropriating it and other cultures, religions, and magic, thinking that they’re the better guardian of such traditions. Older takes this narrative thread and runs it through the entire novel, asking important questions that reflect our own world: what right do you have to a culture and tradition that’s not yours? Why do you assume something that’s not yours in the first place? And how do you combat those who feel so justified and would take your culture, your community, and even your life, from you?
And while Older takes the time to write about the major issues and ways of our world, he just as often takes time to paint the smaller instances that contribute to the living, breathing, true feeling of Brooklyn in 2015. Older takes time to show the truth and diversity of Sierra’s neighborhood, the normalcy of Izzy and Tee’s relationship, the heartbreaking matter-of-fact moments when Bennie talks about her brother being shot by the cops, the way that Sierra is casually catcalled on the street, the smell and feel of a nightclub that she finds herself in with Robbie, the sweat and food and subways of Brooklyn compared to the soulless immensity of Manhattan. In ways both big and small, Older himself shapes a living, breathing world in Shadowshaper, and manages to give equal weight to matters both supernatural and realistic.
But all of this, all of it, wouldn’t work without the sheer amount of heart that Older infuses into every page of this novel. Shadowshaper isn’t just a story written to be any old book at the store; it’s for every young person of color who doesn’t see themselves on the bookshelf. It’s for every kid who got told he or she wasn’t good enough, and couldn’t possibly be the hero of the story. It’s for the adults today who didn’t have Sierra there for them when they were growing up. Older uses every page of this book not only to tell the story of a young woman of color coming into her power, but to show every other young man and woman of color that, yes, you, too, are worthy of stories, and you, too, can be the hero of your story. Just as he guides Sierra through the process of recognizing her power and worth, so too is Older making the same offer to the disenfranchised youth of this generation: you, too, have worth, and you especially have power. By seeing Sierra in this story, hopefully they can see themselves, too. That beating heart is truly what makes Shadowshaper so amazing, and hopefully what will inspire a whole new generation of writers and artists and creators to come.
In an industry clamoring for more novels that reflect the actual world in which we live, and not the same old-school white narratives, Older delivers. Sierra is a strong, young woman of color whose journey through the narrative is equal parts personal—as she learns who she is, what she's capable of, and the strength needed to wield that power—and also somewhat larger: of a young woman having to stand against a world that tells her that she’s not enough, that her family’s not enough, her culture is not enough, and yet who fights back tooth and nail to say, no, she’s more than enough. And you’d better get used to it.
Martin Cahill works publicity by day, bartends by night, and writes in between. When he’s not slinging words at Strange Horizons, he’s contributing to Book Riot, and blogging at his own website, usually about books and/or beer. A proud graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2014, he can be found on Twitter @McflyCahill90.