Books, Reviews

Spirit-powers in Brooklyn – my review of ‘Shadowshaper’, by DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER


‘Shadowshaper’ by Daniel José Older is a fast-paced and page-turning fantasy tale set in present-day Brooklyn. The story’s main character is Sierra Santiago, a teen-aged girl who is a talented painter of wall murals. Right from the get-go, ‘Shadowshaper’ launches us into Sierra’s world, as she is painting a big, colourful dragon on the wall of a new and unwanted apartment tower. Sierra has recently noticed that several of the neighbourhood’s older wall murals are not only fading, but changing in subtle yet significant ways – though strangely, no one else seems to notice this. It soon becomes clear that something sinister is at work in the neighbourhood, and eventually Sierra comes to understand that she, and her family, are involved in, and threatened by, what is going on.

This story had me hooked from page one, and kept me hooked throughout. Older keeps the action moving at high speed, ducking and weaving through the streets of Brooklyn, Sierra’s family-life and friendships, as well as the new strange world of magic and spirits that opens up to her as she learns more and more about the powers – both good and evil – at work around her, and inside her.

The cast of characters is fantastic throughout, and Sierra is a terrific heroine: smart and tough and strong, but also flawed and conflicted enough to feel absolutely real. Her circle of friends adds another great layer to the story, with friendships that feel like they’re taken from the real world, and dialogue that captures both the friends’ quippy banter and more touching moments.

The magic universe that lurks just beneath the surface of everyday life in ‘Shadowshaper’ is both fascinating and original, with old and new powers mixing in unpredictable ways. Older’s writing is strong and expressive throughout, and he also manages to convey a real sense of place: every facet of the story – the characters, the smells of the food in Sierra’s home, the sound of the music she listens and dances to, and the look and vibe of her neighbourhood – come alive in vivid detail. Some scenes blew me away with their visual power – especially towards the end when Sierra’s fight scenes, and her moments of revelation, are particularly strong. There is also one breathtaking fight scene that gave me a new appreciation of tattoos!

Older weaves in threads about life in Brooklyn, as well as discussions about racism, gentrification, and a lot more without sounding forced or preachy. For this, and other reasons, ‘Shadowshaper’ reminded me that setting a fantasy story in a contemporary, real life setting (as opposed to an alternate universe or fantasy world), can be extraordinarily powerful and effective.

‘Shadowshaper’ is pegged as Young Adult, and it would be a great read for teens, but it’s also a great read for anyone else who is looking for a gripping and original fantasy tale.

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