Review: SHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Older

ShadowshaperShadowshaper by Daniel José Older
(YA Fantasy; Arthur A. Levine Books 2015)

4.5/5 Stars

Brooklyn teen Sierra inherits the power to work with the spirit realm through her art. But it’s not a gift easily mastered: the adults in her life are unable or reluctant to help and her fellow shadowshapers are disappearing. No matter: she’s determined to protect her family and their legacy.

Writer Brain: 5/5. So many good things happened in this book from a craft perspective. But I’m going to focus on Sierra at the moment. I was relieved to find a teen-discovers-[cool thing]-and-[her/his]-life-changes story in which things didn’t just happen in quick, unrelenting succession to the main character, whether or not the character did something about it. Sierra wouldn’t have stood for it. She immediately went looking for answers, even when the world didn’t want her finding them for one reason or another. She fought hard for every ounce of agency she wielded. She continues down the path even though the deeper she goes the riskier it gets, and she takes those risks thoughtfully. It was refreshing and wonderful.

Editor Brain: 5/5. After hearing Older speak at a few cons and after seeking out several panels at which he talked about dialect, bilingual and POC characters, and diverse voices, it was so great to read this book and see everything he talked about embodied in the text and the characters he crafted. This novel is a perfect example for anyone trying to craft dialogue that sounds natural and real without hampering it with stilted, whitewashed affectations of the past. Sierra and her friends code-switch with ease, as all teens do, but you never doubt their intelligence. There are no egregious misspellings of deeply accented words; there is no profusion of apostrophes or italics. Language is just language. And if you’re at all familiar with the cadence of Puerto Rican+Brooklyn English, then you’ll hear it echoing in your head. Older’s treatment of language should be the standard to which all writers are held when crafting any dialogue. And if you’re seeking a good way to respectfully,

Reader Brain: 4/5. I really liked this book. I nodded big, empathetic nods at much of Sierra’s self-discovery, though our experiences are vastly different in many ways, too. I hurt for the moments when she’s dismissed for one reason or another, because it read so real and because I know it happens. I reveled in the coolness of so much of it: the magic, the lore, the connections. It was a joy to read aloud to ELF. And it taught me a few things because I am not a New Yorker, a Puerto Rican teenager, a street artist, a teenager of color. So why not 5/5? I have to say that it’s darn close. There were some plot things with which I wasn’t thrilled, a few loose threads that I wanted woven in. Maybe that’s because there’s a book 2 planned? I haven’t heard, but I hope so. I’m certainly going to read more by Older and I certainly recommend this book strongly.

Et Cetera: Seriously, that cover…

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