Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.

With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one — and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come. — [X]*

This. Damn. Book. *clutches to chest* So. *stifles sob* Good.

Let me begin by saying that it’s a good thing that the cover for Shadowhaper isn’t cluttered because I expect that Sierra’s hair will soon boast an award sticker or two. Or it would if YA fantasy awards got it together and gave out stickers. I mean, imagine having a problem like the one faced by Ari and Dante: “Oh no, her glorious hair is all covered up … by these many award stickers … whatever will I do with all the awesome on my cover …”

*ahem* Okay, giddy predictions aside, here is what you need to know about this book:

Sierra & Co.

Not since, I think, Kristin Cashore’s Lady Fire, did a female protagonist make me fall in love with her so easily and so entirely. Sierra Santiago is, forever more, going to be the first name that pops out of my mouth when I want to list well-written characters. She is probably going to be the one I think about while writing my own stories. She is currently painting something on the walls of my head because I just can’t get her out of my brain. Not that I’m complaining. Sierra’s a great character to hang out with. No other character could carry Older’s story of murals and magic quite so gracefully. The thing I love most about Sierra is that no matter how unsure she is of the world around her– no matter how many new things she learns about herself and her own family– she is never unsure about herself. This strength is incredible to behold and it dictates every aspect of her life: whether she is painting a mural to fight gentrification or standing up to her racist aunt and secretive mother. Strip her of her shadowshaper magic and it only serves to make Sierra a realer, bigger hero. The kind of hero I wish I could see more of in YA fantasy.

Her friends are no less brilliant. Tee and Izzy are basically my OTP now (sorry, Malec) and Bennie is the best friend any girl could hope to have in high school. And Robbie … hmm. I want to say that Robbie could kick the Brooding YA Hero’s ass, but I have a feeling that Robbie would end up making friends with Brooding YA Hero because NO ONE CAN RESIST SWEET ROBBIE! That’s just the kind of guy Robbie is and man, is he a breath of fresh air.


I AM ALREADY AT 800 WORDS HERE! Um, I’m going to cheat on this section and ask that you read Debbie Reese’s excellent post on what magic means when it is not the bland, generic magic we get in most fantasy novels, and what it means in Sierra’s particular case. Basically, the magic is unlike anything I’ve ever read, without ever being alienating. The scenes where Sierra draws spirits (pun intended) to herself and uses this harmonious relationship to create incredible art are gripping and entirely original.

Landscape & Language

The world created by Older, though somewhat unfamiliar because it just isn’t represented often, is an easy one to slip into. I’ve never been to the States but Older writes with a conscientious, welcoming hand. You read about gentrification and Brooklyn as well as culture and community through the Sierra’s eyes and it wakes you up and you just get it.

As for the language, well, TBH the first time I’d even heard what Spanish sounded like was in high school and I was sixteen, but even without the mindful translations, I bet readers would have understood the conversations. Older’s effortless movements from English to Spanish and back again, was something I personally loved because it felt so familiar and resembled the patterns of my own conversations with my parents. Another thing I loved about the writing was that the characters all have such strong voices and such distinct manners of speech. Were their names hidden, you’d still be able to guess who the speaker was. It’s all so meticulously, wonderfully done.

I could honestly go on and on but I’m at a 1000+ words now and I ought to wrap this up. I just. I cannot believe this is a YA debut book! Partially because you can always tell that a YA book is a debut. Typically, at the very end of a debut novel, the writer approaches something (a plot point, a thought, an action), hovers around it, and then backs off, deciding to revisit it properly in a future novel. There is no such hesitancy in Older’s writing and reading the surety of his characters and his story is a delight. Another reason I can’t believe this is a YA debut is because, well, not since Marie Lu’s Legend did a debut novel obliterate all competing novels in the same genre. Not to say that all other fantasy books are irrelevant, it’s just that there is something so deeply satisfying and complete about Shadowshaper that– oh.

Oh no.

I think I’m describing the beginnings of a book hangover.


Well, I guess that kind of gets my point across: read this book! It is so good you won’t want to read anything else! Except perhaps a sequel set in the same world. There will be a sequel, right? Right?!

*I didn’t trust the Goodreads summary, so I used the summary from Older’s website. The one on his site doesn’t do that thing where the first line is “Fans of X will like this …” I mean, they’re not wrong. As a fan of X I did like Y and yes, I do see the merit of selling books in this manner but it’s more complicated than that and I have t h o u g h t s on this kind of marketing. Expect a post soonish.

6 responses to “Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

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  3. Pingback: Review: Bone Street Rumba (Books 1 And 2) by Daniel José Older | The Book Wars·

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