Tuesday Reviews Day: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

I promised you all a review of Shadowshaper last week, but reality has been nothing if not a pain lately, so quite a few things got put on hold. This time, thankfully, it wasn’t a few rounds in the ring with my depression or anxiety that put my life on pause; not so thankfully, it was migraines this time. Yay.

But I did give you a sneak peek at my thoughts on the book, so we’ll just pick up where I left off.

This is the second book I’ve read by Older, and it’s every bit as amazing as I expected. But what’s really so striking about this book is its focus: the main characters are all POC. And honestly, I hadn’t realized how whitewashed my book choices were until I took the No-SWCM Authors Challenge back in March. I’ve discovered worlds of fiction I never envisioned, and this book is amazing. Not just for this reason, but it strikes me as I read that this is not about me. And I love it.

I don’t feel excluded or unwanted; it feels familiar and comfortable, like hanging out with friends, but it isn’t mine the way my family is mine. It isn’t my story. And I love it for that. It’s refreshing to read something that doesn’t feel worn out. It’s refreshing to see books about people who look like people I know, who talk like people I know, but who are not exactly like me. I know the inherent privilege that comes with admitting that; I might as well say “wow, it gets really boring to read about people like me all the time,” and I realize how that sounds. But I am bored of it. I’m tired of ‘White’ being the default setting. It is refreshing to read about something else, to learn about someone else. And I imagine that, for POC readers, it is refreshing to finally see a mirror. Not to mention, I truly believe this will help change the way I write characters of my own.

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Careful, Sweetie.

Careful, Sweetie.

The book opens as Sierra begins to notice strange things happening to the murals around Brooklyn. They’re fading unusually fast, and is that one … crying?

Her grandfather Lazaro — incoherent after a devastating stroke — starts babbling to her about shadowshapers, Lucera, and a boy named Robbie from Sierra’s school.

Sierra seeks out Robbie for help with her mural and her grandfather’s confusing statements, but she gets the feeling that everyone around her knows more than they’re telling her. She decides to investigate the matters herself, and enlists the help of her closest friends and a troublemaking godfather, Neville. Sierra learns that shapers are disappearing one by one, and she suspects one of the shapers’ own friends is behind it.

She learns that Robbie is a shaper, and after a few close calls with someone’s twisted creations sent to find Lucera, Robbie and Sierra discover she also has the gift. Robbie teaches her to wield it, and with the help of her friends, Sierra manages to find Lucera before the mysterious shaper does. Lucera passes her gift on to Sierra, who takes on the dark shaper and defends her family, her neighborhood, and her family’s gift from the forces trying to wrest them away.

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END SPOILERS

How I found it: Barnes & Noble Nook store. I couldn’t help myself; everyone on Twitter was reading it…
Genre: Young adult; fantasy; bildungsroman; magical realism
Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes
Is it a standalone? Yes
So what worked? In all seriousness, everything about this book worked. The vibrant settings, the musicality of it all, the female lead, the utterly real conflicts she faces, the body positivity, the sex positivity (which might sound odd given the lack of any actual sex), the beauty of growing into oneself and accepting oneself, I just …. wow. I could go on for days.
What didn’t work? Literally nothing. There is absolutely nothing I would change about this book.

Overall: This book lit a fire in me. I want to go home and write all the books. I want to paint all the paintings. I want to do all the things I’ve been aching to do and “never had the time.” It was inspiring and motivational and utterly, gut-wrenchingly beautiful. I’ve  said before and I’ll say again that I loved it more because it wasn’t a story about me. It didn’t need to be, and it didn’t attempt to be nor make apologies for that. I love that, not only are the main characters POC and mostly female, they’re all empowered, they’re real. They sometimes struggle with body image, with fitting in, but there’s no judgment made on their character or their appearance. Among Sierra’s closest friends is a lesbian couple, and this is where we touch on that sex positivity thing I mentioned. There is no sex in this book, in fact there’s a lack of basically anything except some mild smoochin’. Again, there’s no judgment passed on her friends; they’re just her friends and they are dating each other. I particularly love its treatment of racism and sexism, and how Sierra learns to confront and overcome them rather than letting these outside attitudes dictate her thoughts about herself. It’s difficult, of course, but it’s encouraging to see her confront and overcome the sexism she faces. That’s certainly something that, as a woman, I’ve got more experience with than I’d like. And yeah, I really enjoyed reading her putting ol’ Racist Rosa in her place.

Of course, I think I’d be selling the book short if I didn’t touch on the fact that it’s not just about a teenager with magical powers. It’s about more than that, and this is where I think it’s key to read broadly. Throughout the book, there are hints of the gentrification that plagues areas like Brooklyn, this weird dance between white flight and outright overtaking historically minority areas. There are hints at police violence; Bennie’s brother was, after all, gunned down by cops not far from his own home. There’s this undercurrent that makes this book essential reading for white people in particular: Everything doesn’t belong to you. There is a line between appreciation and appropriation, and crossing it can have dire consequences, usually for the minority in the equation. We as white people can enjoy the art and the history of other cultures, we can even be invited into them, but we shouldn’t take that and pervert it and make our own bastardized version and pretend it’s the same or even better than what we stole.

But really, this. book. is. awesome. Go get it, read it, love it, share it. (And then maybe tell me what to read next? Leave a comment below!)

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