Series: Shadowshaper, #1
Author: Daniel José Older
Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Release Date: June 30th, 2015
Length: 304 pages | 7 hours 21 minutes
Source: Borrowed from my local library
Sierra Santiago was looking forward to a fun summer of making art, hanging out with her friends, and skating around Brooklyn. But then a weird zombie guy crashes the first party of the season. Sierra’s near-comatose abuelo begins to say “No importa” over and over. And when the graffiti murals in Bed-Stuy start to weep…. Well, something stranger than the usual New York mayhem is going on.
Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order’s secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick’s supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family’s past, present, and future.
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS
This is a tough one to review, because I’m a fan of “own voices” books (i.e., non-white/non-straight/non-cisgender authors writing non-white/non-cisgender/non-straight MCs) and narratives with supporting folklore (bonus points if it’s actual folklore from somewhere in the world). I actually put off reviewing this book for a week because I was genuinely concerned that my feelings about this book might be an indication that I’ve got a bias against non-white MCs or authors. (constant vigilance!)
So, if you form the opinion after reading this review that I’m racist, I hope you’re wrong but I’m not objective enough to know. I can tell you some of my favorite authors of all time are non-white/non-straight (possibly non-cisgender, too). But I haven’t honestly read a lot of non-white protagonists in urban fantasy (ironically, in fantasy and historical fiction, yes, but anything near a contemporary setting, no). I’m also willing to admit that my expectations of this book may have been higher than they should have been, just because I so rarely see Puerto Rican female MCs in anything.
OK, with that disclaimer out of the way: I really liked the premise of this book. Ancestral magic in an urban setting, art that’s alive, and a unique setting. The biggest letdown was my utterly inability to connect with Sierra. She’s got some fun moments of sassy independence that are almost a lampooning of typical damsel-in-distress tropes. But she never felt genuinely vulnerable or flawed, and so almost everything seemed superficial- her friendships, her concern, her handling of the Chosen One trope (which is another thing that distanced me from the story). She doesn’t emotionally process anything, nor does that appear to affect her.
The environment was a large factor- I can only assume the author knows NYC intimately. If you know anything about Bed-Stuy (and I didn’t- thanks, Wikipedia!) you’ll probably be tickled at all the local references. But as someone who does not live in NYC and has no touchstone, I was lost with all the references. It just felt like a wedge, driving me from the narrative, instead of utilizing the environment as a plot device.
The ensemble cast was so much background noise- representation in name but not in fact, in that we didn’t learn anything about anyone (except Robbie and his epic tattoos, shaggy dreads, wicked artistic talent, dance skills, and heart of gold). I can tell you two of the characters are lesbians, but I can’t tell you how they move, what they care about, what they love and hate about knowing Sierra, etc. That sort of thing- and plenty of stories have characters-as-set-dressing, but with the lack of feeling connected to the MC, I was looking to her interactions with her friends to give me reasons to give a damn.
I did feel like the “you’re too black” crap that Sierra’s aunt was slinging came from a genuine place. I don’t buy the interactions there, either, but it was nice to see that kind of subtle tearing down within a family dynamic (which I feel is realistic) and the chance for empowerment/self-affirmation it gave Sierra. Also, the sexism within her family (realistic to me because a) Latino cultures tend to be male-as-the-head and b) of course in a system of magic people will draw gender lines as division- even non-magic contemporary skills get these meaningless gender divisions applied).
OK, my last irk with the book: the villain. This book has ZERO plot twists. None. Every assumption Sierra makes, every mystery inexplicably solved, every chance encounter- none of it is a red herring. And, to me as a reader, that’s like the author telling me I’m not smart enough to figure anything out so they’re not going to bother throwing me anything twisty. (I have this beef with TV shows, as well)
So basically, the villain is the villain with no surprises, and Sierra’s pure assumption about this stranger’s motives turn out to be totally true and no one is surprised.
I would only recommend this book if you’re looking for a superficial urban fantasy jaunt through NYC, or you’re curious about thrash-metal-salsa music.