Sometimes a book comes along that reminds me just what YA literature is capable of --- just what makes YA something that, when done right, becomes more than just about the age of the protagonist and the presence of common story elements. And SHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Older is one of those books, a book that captures both the fun and rebelliousness of youth but also the ability to see old problems with new eyes, to honor the past without being constrained by it.
The novel follows Sierra, a young artist who is thrust into a world of magic and danger when she is attacked at a party by something resembling a zombie. Although it freaks her out a bit, it’s a world that she belongs to, an inheritance of sorts from her family and ancestors. It's an inheritance, however, that she's been denied, "protected" from because her grandfather believed women could not be Shadowshapers, could not channel spirits into art to literally bring them to life (a rather messed up logic considering the most powerful figure in the Shadowshaper tradition is a woman). With the Shadowshapers being hunted down and Sierra caught in the crossfire, she is pressured into choosing between accepting the old ways or abandoning them.
Sometimes a book comes along that reminds me… just what makes YA something that, when done right, becomes more than just about the age of the protagonist and the presence of common story elements. And SHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Older is one of those books.
And that is where SHADOWSHAPER shines --- Sierra rejects both options and steers her own destiny. The book does not forgive the culture for its misogyny; it does not give it a pass. While the villain of SHADOWSHAPER is an outsider who believes he is "saving" the culture from its very practitioners, the characters do not simply have to combat outside problems. The story is about celebrating culture and heritage, yes, but also about reform, about youth, about not allowing tradition to perpetuate oppression or abuse. And it accomplishes that by giving power and agency to its young characters, most notably to Sierra, whose innate sense of justice and fairness push the story onward and keep it honest.
The story also acts as a sort of superhero origin story, placing Sierra in the role of a hero finding herself, coming to terms with her past and deciding that her powers should be used; she should not have to hide who she is. Even as the action and plot and ensemble of richly diverse characters in the story reminded me of superheroics, it twisted the conventions by taking away the masks, by allowing the characters to be themselves without need for avatar or alter-ego. The characters’ personalities are strong enough to make them all distinct and charming, stubborn and hesitant and bold and flawed. The emotional bonds that Sierra has with her friends and family all seem real and all ground the story even as the action gets more and more magical. Really, the only thing that stood out as more "superhero-y" was the villain, Wick, who, while realistically flawed, does seem to have really committed himself to classic villainy (murder, massing magical powers, spiritual slavery, etc.).
And in the end, SHADOWSHAPER manages to show the power of youth, the vast potential young people have to recognize injustice and act against it. It does not advocate for waiting until you're older, or for seeking an adult's permission to act. It recognizes that, sometimes, adults are messed up, stuck in their ways and blind to the injustice that they are involved with. It recognizes that, while at times naïve and brash, what young people need is experience in leading change, which can only be accomplished by getting out of the way and letting them get to it. Sierra is an amazing character and the story and setting succeed at capturing that elusive spark that makes YA powerful, subversive and, fun.
Reviewed by Charles Payseur on June 29, 2015