Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older is a triumph. It is a seamless and engaging YA urban fantasy that feels real and immediate and urgent. Sierra Santiago, the main character, is a revelation: an Afro-Latina with agency, with consciousness, replete with unrelenting badassery. The pacing never stops. The prose never hitches. And the cover is gorgeous. I literally have nothing bad to say about this book.
Shadowshaper follows Sierra, a burgeoning muralist in Brooklyn, as she discovers that she is part of a line of spiritual artists called shadowshapers—and that the other shadowshapers are getting hunted down and murdered. With the help of Robbie, her classmate and fellow emerging muralist, she has to uncover who is hunting the shadowshapers and put a stop to it.
Everything that follows is gold, from her clever interludes with her godfather Neville, who uses the racist assumptions society holds against Black men to his advantage to help her infiltrate Columbia, to Sierra’s realization that it is, ultimately, it was her Puerto Rican grandfather’s machismo that kept her from knowing her own power for so long. This book is steeped in race and gender; Older never flinches and never shies away from portraying the ways in which these axes of oppression shape his characters’ lives. For young readers of color, especially girls of color who yearn to see their experiences acknowledged in literature, this will be powerful1. As a queer reader, I loved that Older included right at the start a pair of lesbians in Sierra’s friend group. Tee and Izzy were just there, just hanging out, treated as normal. It made me feel safe in his world.
The worldbuilding is lovely, and its supported by Older’s ability to highly visual storytelling style. His prose is extremely sensual—there is a scene which takes place in a Haitian night club that succeeds on the strength of his ability to evoke the richness of the mural in the club and the way the mural shimmers and shifts with the music played by the nightclub’s live band. It’s a strong demand of the written word to make you see that mural, to hear that music, to see the relationship between those two things, but Older pulls it off. He employs that device over and over through the course of the book, which is why Shadowshaper is so immersive and rich: it’s a five-sense experience as you read it because it’s so fascinated with so many different kinds of art.
Shadowshaper, like all my favorite spec fic books, is political, too. It has a lot to say about whiteness and white supremacy. Ultimately what Sierra is fighting against is gentrification, appropriation, white entitlement. I won’t spoil it, but I read the book and I read Sierra as a statement about the importance of communities of color banding together to preserve themselves and their culture from sublimation into the maw of Whiteness. There is a scene, fairly early in the book, where Sierra and her friends go to a coffee shop that has appeared in their neighborhood only to find that it’s overpriced and full of white hipsters. At first, they make fun of it. But then:
It looked like a late-night frat party had just let out; she was getting funny stares from all sides—as if she was the out-of-place one, she thought.
And then, sadly, she realized she was the out-of-place one.
Looking back from the end of the book, this scene is eerie in its foreshadowing of Sierra will fight against.
1I CANNOT WAIT until my partner Sam reads this book. Sam is Latina and has talked to me at length about how hard it was for her to find things to read as a kid growing up and how much she disliked the Old Dead White Dude Canon that was pushed on her in English classes. This is exactly the kind of book that she will love and that she should have been able to find as a kid in a school library, and I sincerely hope that Shadowshaper finds its way onto middle school and high school English curricula for that reason.