Tuesday, December 15, 2015


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.

Sierra was looking forward to a relaxing summer break. Her plans involved hanging out with her friends and painting. They did not involve being chased by zombie like creatures and threatened by a magical power connected to her family's heritage she has never heard of. When murals begin fading all over her Brooklyn neighborhood, Sierra is perplexed. When her grandfather, who had a stroke, begins to apologize and starts repeating strange phases and insisting Sierra get the help of a boy she barely knows to help her finish her mural, Sierra is concerned but mostly about her grandfather. Then at a party Sierra talks to Robbie as requested and quickly finds herself being pursued by the bodies of people who used to be friends with her grandfather but are now dead. As Robbie explains to Sierra the mysterious power of shadowshaping, placing the spirits of dead ancestors into art to give both spirits and art more power, Sierra discovers her family's deepest secrets. Now Sierra, Robbie, and their friends have to fight to put to right her grandfather's biggest mistake and defeat a murderer intent on taking all the power of the spirit world for himself.

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.


  1. I feel so awkward because I haven't heard of this book before! It sounds awesome though, and since you liked it I'll be sure to put in on my TBR!

  2. I should try this one again. For me it fell into the category of "any perfectly good book is ruined by the addition of zombies." Also, it started to drive me crazy that no one would tell Sierra anything; it seemed like just a plot device—she can't know what's going on because otherwise there would be no plot—and I hate that particular authorial manipulation. So, for me, the fact that I couldn't get a handle on the fantasy elements trumped all the great character/community stuff going on that everyone raves about.

    1. Usually I'm with you on the zombie thing, but they worked for me in this.

      And Sierra's lack of knowledge worked for me too. Her mother's refusal to tell her makes sense at the end. (She has convinced herself none of it is real. Sierra doesn't need to know in her mind because it's nonsense.) I really loved the fantasy elements and the connection between art, history, family, power, and magic. Its a powerful metaphor.

      I'm sorry didn't work of you though. That happens sometimes with me and books others seem to love.