Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older is everywhere. Best of lists. Award buzz. Blogs everywhere. It's one of those books everyone is reading and talking about. I had it on my TBR but decided I definitely needed to read it before the year was out just so I could weigh in on one of the most talked about books of 2015 if asked. It is deserving of every good thing said about it. Every. One.
Every single character in this book is wonderful, led by Sierra. Young, talented, passionate, confused, defiant, stubborn, and full of snark, Sierra is a fully realized and powerful heroine. She is very much a teenager often acting on impulse and trusting blindly, but she proves to be brave and quick thinking when it is most important. She also has an amazing supportive community to fall back on. Her best friend Bennie is smart and helpful when it comes to research and dating advice. Also hair braiding. These girls are tight and have each other's backs in amazing ways. Their group is rounded out by two other girls, Izzy and Tee, who are dating each other and are masters at the art of banter. The scenes with the four of them together are the best. Sierra's brother Juan is a typical older brother, teasing, competitive, and willing to put his entire life on hold to run to his sister's side when he knows she is in danger and needs him. Robbie is a fabulous complement to Sierra. Equally passionate about art, deeply concerned with maintaining the balance of shadowshaping, and a fabulous dancer, his support and pursuit of Sierra is everything. EVERYTHING. I love how all of these characters are such teenagers too. They decide to make out at inconvenient times. They bounce back and forth between being deeply serious about what they are doing and goofing off. They don't always use their best critical thinking skills. They kind of fly by the seat of their pants a lot. And it all just rings so true to life.
The core of this book is about relationships and community. Sierra's family relationships have a lot of cracks. Her mother and aunt have no desire to even discuss shadowshaping. Sierra's grandfather had some misogynistic ideas about how shadowshaping should work. Sierra's lack of knowledge of her family's past and powers made her more vulnerable than she should have been. Rebuilding trust and filling in the gaps of what she missed is an important part of her journey. And I love that not all of that is completely resolved. Families are messy. Sierra's friends are important to her and their interactions were some of my favorite parts of the book. I really liked how this wasn't entirely perfect either though. There are times when they don't believer her. Not all of them are capable of standing up with her and being brave. Again, I liked the realism in this.
Then there is the relationship between Sierra and Robbie which is just amazing in every way. I like how Older wrote Sierra's realizing her attraction to him and how it grew. Their relationship develops fast and under fraught circumstances but it is believable and organic. I love everything about them: the art, the dancing, the flirting.
The setting of the book is incredibly important too and just pops off the page. I really felt like I as there with noises, smells, and sights of Brooklyn. Through this part of the book, Older is able to highlight some themes of gentrification and its impact on neighborhoods too. It works really well because it is a part of the lives these kids are leading. They see it and the way they are processing it is incredibly interesting. Adding this to the themes of community and family really strengthened the book. And all of that is on top of its thrilling edge-of-your-seat plot. I could not put this book down, but at the same time never wanted it to end because I didn't want to say goodbye to these characters and their world.