Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older
Sierra is frustrated. No one will tell her the whole truth. Manny asks her to paint a huge dragon mural on the side of a building and recruit a Haitian guy in her class to help her out. Her grandfather, largely incapacitated since a stroke is suddenly having lucid moments and giving her cryptic messages. And if she was expecting her mom to come through for her, this is not the time. Sierra knows she has a role to play in the strange goings on but she just doesn’t know what it is yet.
The spirit world of Brooklyn is in turmoil. Once art, music, and spirits were magically intertwined, but as of late, someone has been using these gifts against the old masters. People are being killed and spirits are being enslaved for nefarious purposes. Sierra knows she must protect those she loves and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Luckily, the Haitian guy she’s supposed to team up with is not only artistic and gifted when it comes to spirits, he’s also incredibly cute. And as always, Sierra’s friends are there for her. Working together, they will fight to set their part of the city to rights.
Older creates a rich picture of Sierra’s Brooklyn, sharing bits of the cultural heritage of her family and friends. Many of them have roots in the Caribbean and Older shares how each of their distinct cultures has a relationship with the spirits and ancestors.
Her friends, even those that play a more minor role in the book have distinct personalities and interests. When Sierra needs backup, a few of her friends choose not to come along while others refuse to leave her side. One teen heads home with a friend while her girlfriend is determined to help Sierra. The friends that skip out don’t stop being her friends though, which is something I really liked. Older doesn’t decide to destroy friendships and relationships over a single moment. In books so often, moments like that would mean the end of the connection, but in real life, friendship contain nuance and I loved seeing that here.
I was also impressed with Older’s ability to weave social issues throughout the book without it ever become a book with a focus of social issues. Sierra does a lot of thinking about racism and her own comfort level with her skin. The teens notice their neighborhood and surrounding areas being gentrified, some to the point of excluding the families that have always lived there. In one area people refuse Sierra help because they assume she’s a “drunk Puerto Rican” and not a teen in danger and distress. A pair of her friends experience harassment because they are lesbians. But the main focus of the book is the damage that is done when one person, through cultural appropriation does an immense amount of harm to the people whose culture he professed to adore. It’s an interesting and important message and one I personally haven’t read about very often. It would make a marvelous discussion topic.
Great for: Lovers of urban fantasy and books with lots of action and adventure. I particularly liked the amount of strength and power in the hands of a teenage girl. If you have readers that liked Scarlett Undercover, I heartily recommend they try this as well. This will also capture the attention of readers who like books about the occult as their are plenty of spirits, bodies possessed by spirits and other types of evil about.
Age Recommendation: The book is reasonably dense, but the content is appropriate for Grades 7 and up. It would have to be a motivated and interested seventh grade reader though. Spanish is used throughout and is not always clearly translated after. This will be a treat for Spanish speakers and good practice for reading comprehension for those who are not.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – A teen thinks another teen is cute. Teens date, including same sex relationships. Teens have crushes on other teens. Sierra’s brother has pictures of half-naked zombie girls on his walls. There are cheek kisses and neck kisses. There is provocative dancing. Paintings kiss. A teen imagines being kissed. A teen removes his shirt.
Profanity – “ass”, “gawd”, “damn”, “jackass”, “dang”, “coño”, “cojones”, “crap”, a teen flips someone off, “God”, “asshole”, “effed”, “Jesus”, “hell”, “jerk”, “oh lord”, “comemierda”, “bastards”,
Death, Violence and Gore – Ambulances on the street lead people to assume there has been (another) shooting. A teen’s brother was killed by the police. A woman spent three weeks in the hospital due to injuries. A man may or may not be joking about having a gun in his trunk. A man dabbles in the occult. People communicate with spirits. There are some that put spirits into dead bodies to control them. A teen’s grandmother died of liver cancer. Two kids were injured while riding a bike. A teen slaps someone across the face. A teen is sexually harassed by a passing driver. Teens discover the body of someone they knew and cared about. Shadowshaped art shows men with axes and machetes. People are armed with a shovel, an axe, a baseball bat. People need to fight walking corpses. When hit, the bodies sort of collapse and flesh falls off. Someone pushes in a corpses eyes which squish. People fight chalk-dust phantoms. A man throws a teen against a wall repeatedly. A man discusses killing people. A woman is injured in a struggle. A demon’s claws slash a teen’s face.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Adults drink rum. An adult has a smoke. People drink at a club. A musician is referred to as drunk. We do not ever see teens drinking. A man smokes cigars. A building was a crack house.
Frightening or Intense Things – Someone answers vaguely when asked if someone is dead. Sierra’s grandfather gives out cryptic warnings. Sierra is pursued by someone who may not be alive. Sierra’s grandfather has suffered a stroke; he is sometimes lucid, but more often not. There are descriptions of how it affects him and about what he was like in the hospital that may be upsetting to readers who are triggered or bothered by hospital scenes. There are some dark shadowy things that attack. Some of the bad guys have the ability to enslave people’s spirits.