I picked up Shadowshaper (the first book in Daniel José Older‘s series The Shadowshaper Cypher) last year. In many ways, it was a refreshing read, and was markedly different from the kind of books I am accustomed to reading.
Shadowshaper follows Brooklyn-born Latin-American painter Sierra Santiago as she tries to make sense of things that are happening around her. Murals are changing without any explanation, people are attacking her out of nowhere, and everyone seems to know what’s happening except her.
Bit by bit, Sierra uncovers a family legacy of magic expressed through art. She must do battle not only with the misogyny of her own family and mystical culture, but an unknown enemy who seeks to usurp the power for itself.
Shadowshaper is far from your typical urban fantasy, in the sense that the magic is cast not with wands or fire blasts, but with art: murals, chalk drawings, and even tattoos. In many ways, Sierra’s story is written as a subversion: street art, for example (so often seen as the work of ‘hooligans’ and the uneducated) is reclaimed as an act of self-identity, power, and a way to connect with one’s past.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Older’s story is crafted as a slow buildup of revelations as Sierra learns the history and art of shadowshaping from her family and community. Those who possess this gift (known as shadowshapers) can channel the spirits of the dead into pieces of art, anchoring them to the mortal world, and, by extension, to those they left behind.
Unfortunately, though, the shadowshaper community is a boy’s club. The women in Sierra’s family know next to nothing about it, and it’s not by accident. Thus, Sierra’s story is one of claiming her heritage, even against her family’s wishes. Despite this, though, women are historically crucial to the passing on and preservation of the shadowshaper legacy. This decision by Older is a beautiful countertext to toxic patriarchal ideals.
Another theme of the story is seen in the identity of its antagonist. Jonathan Wick, the (clearly white) man whom Sierra’s grandfather inducts into the shadowshaper fraternity seeks to keep the power for himself, killing other shadowshapers and destroying most any hope Sierra has of understanding her heritage. The destructive force of cultural appropriation is masterfully depicted here.
The novella also brought something to mind that will likely impact my future writing. Shadowshaper is unapologetically bilingual: Spanish words are not othered by being italicised. Far too often, we Jamaicans seem to believe that our language has no place in ‘proper’ writing, perhaps out of the belief that it is ‘less than’, or out of fear that readers won’t understand. As as result, our language is watered down to make it more ‘palatable’. As a bilingual Jamaican and as a writer, this use of language was beyond inspirational.
All in all, Shadowshaper is a good read. It is not only a creative tale of “Brooklynite Latinx teenagers using magical graffiti to battle evil” (Alex Brown, Tor.com), but a philosophical text that manages to make its point without being preachy. I highly recommend it!