Fair Warning: The last paragraph of this review is more spoilery than I usually get, but it was necessary in order to discuss one of the key elements of this book.
“Her voice carried the voices of a hundred thousand souls in it; a whole history of resistance and rage moved with her.”
Sierra Santiago starts out her summer painting a giant mural of a dragon on an ugly concrete tower, a small act of resistance against the uninhabited building that sticks out like a sore thumb in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn where her family has lived for three generations. But as she works on her own painting, she begins to notice something strange; other murals around the neighbourhood seem to be fading unusually quickly, and more than once she swears she catches the portrait of Papa Acevedo weeping. The strange happenings raise questions only Sierra’s nearly catatonic abuelo could answer, but he has barely spoken since his stroke the year before. Her mother stonewalls Sierra’s every attempt at getting answers, and meanwhile her grandfather’s old associates have begun to go missing. As she digs into her family history, Sierra discovers a legacy that has been hidden from her for her entire life.
The magic system in Shadowshaper is not particularly well explained, but it is very cool, harnessing the power of creativity and the spirits of the community towards a common goal. Sierra has always had an artistic bent, but she begins to understand that her talent for drawing can be much more than that when she learns that drawings can be animated by willing spirits channeled through the shadowshaper. We see interesting variations of this with her brother Juan, who is a musician, and learn that her grandfather did his ‘shaping not through visual media but with his exceptional skill for storytelling, making his stroke particularly devastating. She also meets Robbie, another young artist who can direct his creations and even his tattoos through his skills.
Shadowshaper strives hard to maintain a fast pace. As such, the dialogue can be a little direct or on the nose, sometimes clearly aimed at moving the plot along. The rest of the time however, Older is able to capture slang on the page in a way that feels quite natural and lively. Similarly, some actions seem a little bit unlikely but again, directed towards making something happen that will drive the story forward. Something gets lost in the way of character development and world-building in this rush, but since Shadowshaper is first in a series, Older has space to continue developing these elements in future books.
As Sierra investigates her grandfather’s old associates, one stands out; a white professor from Columbia University known for studying “urban spirituality systems” had been hanging around with her abuelo shortly before his stroke. As she digs into his past, she hears strange rumours about Professor Wick’s studies, that he was actually acquiring the powers he was supposed to be observing. It is here that the core of Older’s narrative becomes clear; Shadowshaper is an allegory for cultural appropriation, as Wick begins to feel entitled to the knowledge the shadowshapers have entrusted him with, and tries to assume a position of power within the community that welcomed him. If the old guard will not bend to his vision, he will destroy them and begin again, stripping Sierra of her heritage and her birthright in the process. Ultimately it is a cautionary tale about entitlement, and what happens when traditional knowledge meets a Western academy that doesn’t share its core values.
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