Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older (Scholastic, June 30th, 2015), is a gripping new YA fantasy that just goes to show that there's a lot more magic out there than is found in medieval Celtic inspired otherworlds. The heroine, Sierra Santiago, is a Puerto Rican teen living in Brooklyn, who finds that her family are Shadowshapers, able to infuse two-dimensional art with the spirits of the dead. She does not find this out in a pleasant, "oh gee I've got magic!" sort of way; instead, she finds it out when people she's known all her life start dying, and malevolent shadow creatures come for her.
With the help of a young Haitian artist, Robbie, himself a Shadowshaper, Sierra sets out to find the killer (a white anthropologist, which added all sorts of interest to me, since that's my own academic training) who's warping the magic of shadowshaping for his own ends (driven mad by anthropological lusts, and the feeling that a white anthropologist knows more than the non-white informants!). But will she be able to untangle the secrets her families kept from her, and learn to use her power, in time? Fortunately, Sierra has really good friends, as well as Robbie, on her side, friends who are willing to believe the wild stories she has to tell. And fortunately she's a fast learner....
So I would say that I am not particularly drawn to "urban fantasy" mainly because I find urban settings kind of gritty and unappealing, in real life and in fiction. But Sierra's Brooklyn is not defined by grit. Instead it is a place of memories and meaningful connections; it is Sierra's Place. And I do like a strong sense of place and belonging, so the urban-ness of Brooklyn didn't impinge on my enjoyment.
And likewise, though Sierra, an African-American-Puerto Rican urban teen, doesn't overtly mirror my own life experience, she is Real enough to simply enjoy spending time with, and her concerns about family and her feelings toward Robbie and her self reflection (happily self reflection that's primarily positive, rather than body image critical) are eminently relatable. The dialogue is fast paced and full of non-standard English, making things simultaneously realistic sounding (to me, for what that's worth) or unfamiliar (I think age as much as anything is a big contributor to the unfamiliar factor for me).
But I guess the point I'm trying to make is that it's not a book I read thinking "oh wow this a mirror into lives not at all like my own teenage years" and more a book I read thinking "oh wow it is fun to read a fantasy that goes in directions that aren't along well-oiled tracks." At the risk of sounding banal, I can, with confidence, say that Shadowshaper struck me as "fresh," "vibrant," and "gripping."
Academic me also was very interested in the villainous anthropologist; the tension of the neo-colonialist outsider appropriating indigenous culture is very real in the real world, and it is was interesting as all get out to see it driving a fantasy story!
Yet that being said, it is Sierra's experience as the person she is that stays with me most clearly, because she is so very real! And her friends are very real. And I want to see if what she and Robbie have growing between them turns into more, and what happens with their art, and their lives shaping shadows....
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher