Colleen Mondor reviews Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older (Arthur A. Levine 9780545591614, $17.99, 304pp, hc) June 2015.

Behind the decidedly fierce cover of Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper is the story of a young woman thrust into a fast-paced adventure that is heavy with magic and mystery. While grounded in the urban Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, there are elements of old world power threaded throughout the narrative and a deep respect for the past is a key part of the plot and character motivations.

Sierra Santiago is an artist and aspiring muralist with a deep affection for her family, friends and neighborhood. A bundle of classic teenage contradictions, wavering between bold assertiveness and nervous self-doubt, Sierra wants to be sure of who she is and how she fits into the world around her, but struggles with the same sort of uncertainties about her appearance that have plagued teenage girls for time immemorial. Unfortunately, she has little time to deal with this as big trouble is brewing and her family is at the heart of it.

The first problem is that her murals are disappearing. As Sierra paints on the side of a building, she notices that nearby murals seem to be fading at an alarming rate. Her curiosity takes a sharp turn when one of them appears to weep through the wall and then, before she can process that weirdness, her ailing grandfather charges her to finish her work as quickly as possible because ‘‘they’’ are ‘‘coming for the shadowshapers.’’

Now Sierra has two mysteries to solve and only one clue – her abuelo tells her to seek the help of a classmate named Robbie who is also a painter. Robbie will help her get the job done and also, she hopes, explain what is going on.

As Sierra sets out to discover what shadowshapers are and why they matter, she enlists the help of not only the very likable Robbie, but also her friends and an archivist with specialties in folklore and anthropology. Slowly, the group coalesces into an eclectic Scooby Gang that would make Buffy and company proud. Whether or not they will stop the Big Bad before the undead get them is not known, but they are committed to finding answers even if it means sneaking into a library, facing down monsters at Coney Island, or visiting a long abandoned church.

Older weaves the different characters in and out of the story, bringing members of multiple generations into the plot as Sierra seeks to understand how she, and more importantly her family, fit into a tradition of powerful spiritual communication. What can she do about the shadowshapers? What should she do? The answers lie in the past, which is the underlying theme of the book. The murals, the shadows, the monsters; everything is tied into the stories of where Sierra comes from, into the story of who she is.

As she casts about for answers, the topic of family history makes its way into conversations among her friends. Robbie vividly has his Haitian ancestry tattooed on his body, with images of Taino and African warriors and a French soldier on his chest and back. Through Sierra’s search for understanding, Older makes it clear that his characters are more than just names on the page; they are part of a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that is important not because of magic but rather because of the collective uniqueness of its residents. You have to know who you come from, Older insists throughout the narrative, if you want to know who you are going to be.

The past is thus full of ghosts who belong to the living, and the ancestors Sierra has rarely considered, she now comes to realize, are deeply tied to her future. Nothing is as it seems and to bring the full force of the shadowshapers back – to keep that power safe – she will have to embrace all the fears and beauty of the past. In the end, Sierra Santiago will have to set aside her insecurities and be fierce enough to save them all.

Shadowshaper is a unique young-adult fantasy that stands out not only for its diverse characters but the depth of its story. Older has given readers plenty of thrills and mystery to keep the pages turning, but his novel sings loudest when he explores the power of the past. We are all products of those who came before us; but rarely do authors make that so clearly part of the plot as Daniel José Older has done. Exciting, thoughtful and extremely compelling, Shadowshaper is a novel that invites readers to think deeply of their own family secrets and the lengths they will go to uncover the truth of who they are.

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