For many people, one of the most crucial aspects of growing up is the realization that adults are just people. That they, too, are fallible, that they make mistakes, that they don’t have all of the answers, and that sometimes, they make decisions that they regret. And oftentimes, a big part of that realization is in suddenly seeing into the relationships between members of the older generation—picking up on old hurts, long-term rivalries and tensions, suddenly noticing that Uncle Jack never talks to Grandpa John at family reunions.
In Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, Sierra Santiago has that awakening, but it is compounded with even more life-changing information: magic is real. Not only that, but her family has known about it since forever, and if she doesn’t figure out the hows and the whats and the whos SOON, there will be grave consequences—for her, for her family, for Brooklyn, maybe even for the world. Sometimes, urban fantasies take place in a very generalized “city” environment, but not here—Shadowshaper has a three-dimensional, colorful sense of place. Some of that is because of Older’s descriptions of sights and sounds and smells, but even more than that, it’s Sierra’s regular, non-plot-related interactions—greeting neighbors on nearby stoops, dealing with catcalls, her commentary about the ongoing gentrification—that make it so rich.
Sierra herself is a fantastic heroine. She’s confident, she’s got a strong sense of self and self-worth, and she doesn’t take guff from people—especially her male peers. But, underneath the brave exterior she uses to face the world, she still struggles with moments of insecurity and discontent, moments of being unsure about herself. Sometimes she has to pause, to psych herself up, and to actively remind herself about who she is and what she’s capable of—to remind herself that she loves herself as she is. You’d think that the climax of the story, with the magic-slinging and so on, would be when Sierra exhibits the most badassery, but for me, it was those questioning, heart-breaking moments that were the most empowering. Because she is accepting and owning and giving voice to her vulnerabilities, and then she is making the choice to set them aside and keep moving forward—fighting those quiet, insistent internal monsters is harder than fighting a Big Bad on any day of the week.
And there’s so much more! There’s the intergenerational story that I alluded to earlier—the secrets and lies and old wounds and long-standing arguments that span generations and ultimately end up hurting the people we love the most. Within that intergenerational story is a thread about gender, gender roles, and sexism—Sierra doesn’t have the information she needs to fight this battle PURELY because she’s a girl, and that, understandably, makes her furious. There’s a thread about long-term grief: about watching a loved one’s body or mind slowly fail, about how that long, slow process is especially hard because of the added guilt—it’s so easy to equate wishing for emotional relief with wishing for that loved one’s death. It deals with racism in terms of the dominant culture’s assumptions about and behavior toward marginalized cultures, as well as in terms of different marginalized cultures’ assumptions about and behavior towards each other. And there’s a really stellar arc about the problematic aspects of cultural anthropology—that by making a culture the subject of study, you are, by definition, objectifying, commodifying, and othering them.
While there were a few elements that kept it from being a fully immersive reading experience—the magic mechanics were mainly conveyed and explained through conversation, which made for some infodumpy passages; the descriptions of personal interactions and emotions are often conveyed through telling, rather than showing—overall, it was a bang-up adventure with a whole lot of brains, heart, and wicked cool imagery. I’ll be seeking out Older’s adult-market books and stories soon.
Bonus points: Sierra and her friends go to Octavia Butler High, which was a lovely nod to an author who really ought to be more well-known in the larger literary world.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.