100-Character Breakdown: A refreshing, complex, and authentic urban fantasy with brilliant writing and well-drawn characters.
Genre: Young adult, urban fantasy
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (June 2015)
With refreshing voice, an exciting magic system, and deep characters, Daniel José Older’s first foray into young adult literature is stellar. Shadowshaper follows Sierra Santiago, an artistic high school student who expected to enjoy a summer with her friends and the massive mural she’s been painting. But something strange is happening in Brooklyn — her grandfather, who can barely communicate after a stroke, starts apologizing to Sierra endlessly, and a corpse-like man chases after her at the first summer party. Her grandfather tells her that Robbie, another artist and student, will help her. She learns that, like Robbie, she is a shadowshaper. She can use the magic to transfer spirits into art. But she’ll need to learn to use the magic quickly; someone is killing all of the surviving shadowshapers. It’s up to Sierra and her friends to stop the killer and save the shadowshapers.
Older’s story is engaging and exciting, but it is his writing that makes this novel stand out. The voice is refreshing; it effortlessly grounds the reader in Sierra’s world and life. The novel has an authenticity that brings Brooklyn to life, from the exploration of gentrification, the cultures of the different characters, and seamless integration of the Spanish language. Within this well-built, authentic world, Sierra’s journey has a blend of action, mystery, and self-discovery. Sierra’s community is tight-knit, and it is easy for the reader to grow fond of each of the well-drawn characters. Her family is central to her story, and the shadowshaping magic — which allows shadowshapers to connect to the spirits of those they’ve lost — is a perfect way to explore her ancestry. The way the novel tackles issues of race, culture, gender, gentrification, and family makes it complex and powerful. Shadowshaper is as vibrant as Sierra’s shadowshaped art. Older’s YA debut is as brilliant for readers as it is exemplary for writers. Luckily for both readers and writers, there are two sequels planned for this refreshing, innovative world.