In Daniel José Older’s YA fantasy novel Shadowshaper, Brooklyn, New York comes alive as a character more than just a mere backdrop. Older is a former EMT, who has been riding the ambulance through the streets of New York for eight years. In various interviews, he has mentioned how influential his experience as a paramedic has been for his writing. Certainly, this book is no exception.
Although I am posting about Shadowshaper only now, I read the book right after finishing Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost. So, it was interesting to see how both series are set in Brooklyn but take different aesthetic approaches to the city. I haven’t had the chance to read the sequels yet (Shadowhouse Fall & Bruja Born). But, based on what I have encountered so far, Older seems to be interested in embedding the magical elements in the fabric of the city while Córdova creates drama by contrasting the reality of Brooklyn with the fantasy of Los Lagos. I liked that this difference gave each series a unique texture that is sometimes difficult to find in YA fantasy novels due to mega-bestsellers such as Harry Potter Series and the Twilight Saga dominating the market.
The book opens with the protagonist, Sierra Santiago drawing a large mural of a dragon on an abandoned building called, “The Tower.” As the granddaughter of Lazaro Corona, she is adored by old timers in the neighborhood who wear guayaberas and play dominoes on the streets. I loved how Older creates these elderly characters with apparent affection, which I have not often seen in YA novels unless the character is a beloved grandparent of the teenage protagonist.
The Tower is a “five-story concrete monstrosity” that is an eyesore. However, Many the Domino King hints that there might be another hidden purpose for commissioning Sierra to paint the mural. For unknown reasons, murals all over Brooklyn have been fading away in an alarming pace. Moreover, Sierra discovers that the mural painted in the memory of Papa Mauricio Acevedo is crying tears and wonders if she has been hallucinating.
It turns out that Sierra comes from a long line of those with supernatural gifts called shadowshapers. They cannot perform magic by themselves. Yet, they can communicate with spirits and give them forms through art. The spirits return the favor by strengthening the bond of the community and protecting its inhabitants from attacks. What was fascinating to me about shadowshaper magic was that it is never about power. Part of it is because we do not find out what exactly shadowshapers are capable of until the very end of the book. However, the fact that the medium is art, whether it is storytelling or painting, shows that this brand of magic is not designed for conquering the world as in Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter series, for instance.
“She was his match: a child of spirit just like him, a fellow traveler in this mystical Brooklyn labyrinth.”
Once familiar streets of Brooklyn suddenly becomes dangerous for Sierra when the old timers start disappearing one by one and come back as the undead called corpuscules. Yet she finds out that she is not alone as Robbie, the quiet and tall Haitian boy who loves to draw, comes to the rescue as a more experienced shadowshaper. He teaches her how to channel spirits into the murals so that she will be able to fight the dark force encroaching upon them. Their romance is too “match made in heaven” from the beginning. But, both Sierra and Robbie were lovable enough as characters for me to be invested in their stories. Also, Older is probably the most explicitly political writer that I have posted on thus far and takes care in creating strong Afro-Latina characters, who represent the heterogeneity of U.S. Latinx communities. Sierra is a Afro-Boricua girl who is proud of her Puerto Rican ancestry while Robbie has tattoos over his body that celebrates his Haitian, Taino, Zulu and French heritage. Instead of being exoticized by the white gaze, they practice self-love. Also, the secret about Lucera made me keep thinking about the abundance of matrilineal supernatural heritages in the YA novels.
Older’s messages are also clear in his portrayal of other threats that the Brooklyn and the Afro-Latina communities in New York are facing such as gentrification and disproportionate access to higher education. The villain of Shadowshaper, Dr. Jonathan Wick, is very one-dimensional in his evilness. He is not afforded any ounce of sympathy in the book. Yet, what he represents socially is much more interesting than the twisted black magic he steals and performs. Wick is a former professor of urban spiritual system at Columbia University, who has been fired due to violation of research ethics. It is not surprising that he deploys Eurocentric and imperialistic ethnographical gaze on the shadowhunter community that has accepted him into the fold. He believes that he has the right to colonize shadowshapers by destroying Lucera, the exiled sun of the spiritual world. When Sierra visits Columbia to find information on Wick, she feels out of place in this ivory tower that is still difficult for people of color to navigate. As a graduate student, I found scenes like this very fascinating on many levels. I will be keeping an eye out for what kind of issues Older will keep addressing as the series continues. Also, I found out that his sister, Malka Older, is also a prolific speculative fiction writer! They just released their most recent publications, Dactyl Hill Squad and State Tectonics, on the same day. As in Shadowshaper, maybe it runs in the family.