Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older Book Review

I read this back when everything began closing down from the virus and I had final assignments for my final semester of university, so it was kind of a stressful time. Due to that, after my final grade of Shadowshaper was quite negative (1.5 stars out of 4), I didn’t end up writing a review cause I felt my mood may have been too tampered. I remember putting this down a lot, but oftentimes there was something in my head making me too pressured to read. So long has it been since I read this book that I felt to give a proper review, I had to reread it, so I did on a skim. Another quick read later, I now have a review for you!

Daniel Jose Older, the author, lives in the Bedford-Stuvyesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, where this book takes place, and in this neighbourhood lives Sierra Santiago, a teenager with a mother Maria, bigoted aunt Tia Rosa, rockstar brother Juan, a quirky and daring godfather Neville, a grandpa Lazaro, who seems to be losing his mind, and a group of friends who stick together in a world where they have to remain careful. Sierra is also really good at art, and her attention ends up diverted when she sees some paintings and portraits are beginning to look off. And the shy but tall stick-figure named Robbie teaches her about shadowshapers; people who can put a soul into a work of art, as well as how they can create corpuscules; dead bodies with a soul patched into them, giving them minimal but dangerous life. And we learn of an underground war attempting to be restarted by an old friend of her crazy grandpa’s, and how Sierra is caught up in this fight with a superpower she never knew about.

I appreciate the mainly all-Latino cast. Older does a terrific job creating characters navigating their way around a country stacked against them, and I also really like Sierra. You can feel she knows her way around life but doesn’t let that stop her from having fun. She’s also brave and head-on; Sierra’s arguments with her Tia Rosa are even quite chilling. It was also unexpectedly funny when Sierra uses her no-nonsense attitude against beings that could really injure her.

It’s when the supernatural elements arrive when cracks show in the wall. In all honesty, I didn’t find the plot about shadowshapers and spirits really captivating, and I couldn’t figure out why at first. Then by the end I realized there are two reasons.

One is how the book is set up at the very beginning. Pretty much immediately Sierra is informed of the shadowshapers, and her mother clams up at the sight of their name. But there wasn’t really any time for me to get to know Sierra’s environment, friends, life desires. All of that comes later on, but the fantasy elements constantly beg to be in the spotlight ahead of character development. I know some authors love to start strong in their books but this one’s is too strong, seeming like the whole story’s in a big hurry. Due to this, later on when Sierra’s friends are travelling with her, I wasn’t really emotional about any of them potentially getting hurt. In the first Miss Peregrine book, we had more time to learn about Jacob Portman’s relationship with his grandfather, and we got to know the peculiar children, so by the time stuff hit the fan we cared a lot more about the characters. I would’ve liked the book much more if it were kind of like that.

The second reason I didn’t like the supernatural elements much is the main antagonist of this book is not very strong, especially since he’s more heard-about than visible. Laini Taylor’s beloved Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy had an antagonist named Jael who was apparently sinister and despicable, but he wasn’t a part of the story or the actual battles for him to stand out, and I feel I would’ve been more on board with the stories there if he were around more and doing horrible things so we could root against him passionately to keep us more emotionally connected to the story. Sadly, Shadowshaper had the same layout, bad things happening but no one really hateful enough to pin it all on, even though there’s supposed to be one.

The fantasy and the real-life elements felt like two different books not blended together very well, and I didn’t find the fantasy had elements I was biting my nails for. It especially doesn’t help when compared to Older’s superb renditions of the lives of his cast. There’s racism scattered around this book that bodes true to life, and it was enjoyable when everyone just hangs out together acting like teens having fun at clubs and lounges. It’s very refreshing having a YA book that gives an embracing view of this type of environment. And you know, some of the action involving the shadowshapers is exciting, but it all just can’t compare to when the novel is in contemporary mode.

My grade of Shadowshaper today is a little higher post-quick-reread, because when you only look at the dialogue and if you’re able to be okay with constant new chapters, the book is quite fast paced, and I’m willing to continue on with the series. But there have been fantasy adventures with structures that welcome me in a lot better than this one.

If you like this, I’d try: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

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