Shadowshaper – Daniel José Older (2015)
When I heard @danieljose reading from Shadowshaper during the first morning variety show of NerdCon: Stories this past weekend, in Minneapolis, Kevin MacLeod was providing live background music for this exhilarating scene of the book’s protagonist, Sierra Santiago, discovering some of the things she could do with her newfound ability to magically infuse her art with willing spirits, and it was GREAT. And I pretty much immediately ran to the Expo Hall and bought his book for my friend Moti, as a thank-you present for catsitting for me while I was away.
Of course I read it first.
Shadowshaper is incredibly fun and exciting and delightful and tense in all the right ways. It is full of smart, caring, fallible people who feel real, whether the stuff they’re dealing with is familiar (body image, crushes, owning your heritage) or unfamiliar (necromancy, animated murals, etc). The world Older builds is a riot of colour and movement and heart, rooted in contemporary Brooklyn and rooted deeper in the many traditions carried by the borough’s diverse inhabitants. The whole thing is shot through with magic that feels old, magic that feels vibrant and as incredibly full of life as the shadows that inhabit the corners of the world (”The dead were so alive! They carried their whole lives with them in those tall, walking shadows, brought each second, each thrill and tragedy with them wherever they went.”). There’s so much energy there that reading Shadowshaper feels like plunging into it, like being buoyed up by the same timeless force of life and love that surrounds the characters in the book’s most spiritual moments.
Also Sierra is a freaking badass and I love her.
She’s a badass like anybody would actually want to be a badass, like I would want to be a badass. She’s braver than she is careful, but she’s also got some pretty solid common sense, and is aided by a group of friends who refreshingly avoid the genre tropes of miscommunication and making dumb decisions. She carries this great power and loves it; even when it frightens and confuses her, she embraces it and what it means, and uses it to help others without feeling weighed down by the responsibility it brings. She has playful, positive relationships with most of the people around her, and even when she gets into disagreements with her family, the mutual care and respect there is always evident. It’s really really hard not to want to be Sierra Santiago. And I haven’t even mentioned the cute boy.
Older’s characters might make mistakes, and they might have disagreements, but I love how most of them actually want to do the right thing, and are often willing to listen to others to help them get there.There are moments where it might feel a little too neat, a little too ideal – Sierra’s judgment calls are almost always correct, and her friends believe and support her even when she comes at them with really unlikely supernatural shit and death-defying plans. But it’s still really refreshing to read about a bunch of caring and sensible teenagers, when the opposite is so overrepresented in fiction.
I’m going to finish off with a quick mention of the writing itself – it’s fantastic. Sierra’s voice is clear and honest, and the book gallops forward in a fluid idiom that draws me seamlessly into the life of this young Afro-Latina woman and her passion for art and her Bed-Stuy neighbourhood. I’m really excited that this was the first book I chose for my “read a book a month” project, because hell, if somehow I don’t end up feeling inspired to read any other things later, I can always devour the rest of Daniel José Older’s excellent stuff.
GO READ SHADOWSHAPER IT’S SO GREAT