Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older. ★★★
I think my hopes for Shadowshaper might have been high enough that it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when it failed to live up to them. But first let me tell you why I was excited about this new YA fantasy. Sierra Santiago is a young Brooklyn artist who’s planning to spend the summer vacation relaxing and working on paintings when she notices that one of the nearby murals has started weeping. As other strange events begin to occur, Sierra eventually discovers the Shadowshapers – people who use art to connect with the spirits. Unfortunately, the Shadowshapers have been dying one by one.
I was especially excited about Shadowshaper because the heroine is an artist and the art and spirit based magic system sounded very interesting. In a way this was true – the idea remained interesting, but I think the execution could have used some work. It is hard for me to explain why, but the art in Shadowshaper didn’t work for me. There is never a sense of who Sierra is as an artist – what she normally works in, preferred subject matter, or even favorite color. We never see why she draws something or what her art means to her. There’s not any of the little details like the way your body aches after spending hours standing up working on a painting (seriously Sierra should have been way more sore than she was) or the experience of finding paint splattered on yourself with no idea how it got there.
Additionally, the art just isn’t well described. At the beginning of the book, Sierra is working on a mural of a dragon that winds up five feet of an abandoned building. Unfortunately, these are the only two facts given about the dragon, which she works on throughout the book. You never even find out what color it is. When so much of the book depends upon visual art, I want a clearer picture of what these paintings look like. In part I think this was related to Older’s prose style. I honestly don’t get why various blurbs have described the prose as lush or vivid. I found it fairly simplistic, almost more MG than YA.
I don’t think Shadowshaper had great plotting either. It was fairly predictable and just not very interesting. Partly this might have been because of how slow it was starting out. Very little happens for over half the book – random monsters attack Sierra and she runs away. She asks questions about what’s going on and those in the know are evasive. It took almost a hundred pages for someone to finally explain about Shadowshapers to her, and this is a pretty short book. It was a very fast read because of this, and maybe the sheer brevity of it is why I found it thin in places.
What makes my dissatisfaction so frustrating is that this book has the best of intentions. The cast is very diverse – Sierra’s Puerto Rican and of African descent, her love interest is Haitian, there’s a lesbian couple among the secondary characters… It addresses topics such as racism, body image, and sexism. It’s doing a lot of good things, and it has a real heart to it.
Possibly this just wasn’t the book for me. I’ve bounced off art themed fantasy books in the past. Would someone who’s not an artist like Shadowshaper better than me? Quite probably. As I said at the beginning, my expectations were likely too high.