As soon as I saw the cover of Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy novel, SHADOWSHAPER, I knew I had to have it. The cover is amazing. It features a girl of color, Latina, with a wild afro highlighted with colors (which hints at her being a graffiti artist).
I devoured this book. Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve read quickly through a novel. I was addicted. I needed to know what was going to happen next. And, I was never disappointed.
Perhaps it’s the diverse cast of characters. Perhaps I’m desperately hungry for a world that represents POC because I couldn’t get enough of the Latin and Haitian influence. (Really, what book have you read recently with Latin, Black, and Haitian characters?) But no, it’s more than that. Older sets the story in Brooklyn and it’s alive and electrifying. Latin music is strummed between the lines and I allowed myself to sway alongside the protagonist, Sierra Santiago. I was alongside her on the scaffold as she blocked the world out and painted her wall sized murals. I could even hear the men below her trash talking as they played chess. Then there’s the mysterious Robbie (possible romance), who is known as the quiet, weird Haitian. Like Sierra, I needed to know the history of his tattoos. (Side note: I love the uncle in this story. He reminds me of the uncle in the movie, Colombiana starring Zoe Saldana.)
Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. A brief summary you want? You know you can find this online, but I’ll indulge. 🙂 Kick ass protagonist, Sierra, is a talented graffiti artist. There’s a magical history that’s kept secret by her family (secret society) that she has to discover. It’s connected to her art and the murals of her ancestors–uh oh, the murals are fading. Life and death depends on her uncovering the secret. A professor, who’s brought into the secret society, has become greedy for power. Sierra uncovers why the murals are fading and battles against spirits and haints to save her family. There’s also a colorful cast of friends who has her back.
I know you didn’t come here for a summary. You came to learn why you should read it. Or, why I’ve taken the time to write about it.
The secret society that Sierra learns about is steeped in history. I’ve yearned to read a story that dares to uncover or even touch on ancient traditions or religion of Santeria. (Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs and traditions with some Roman-Catholic elements.)There’s been fantasy books made about Greek and Roman mythologies and finally, Older’s tapped into beliefs steeped in Caribbean history. I admire how he honors this blessing to do so with his thanks at the end of his book: “I give thanks to all my ancestors; Yemonja, Mother of Waters; gbogbo Orisa; and Olodumare.” My heart beats with gratitude that this book has been written and this thanks has been given.
I would love to dissect the setting, music, diversity, and even the references to Santeria. But can’t write about it all! This book deals with the real issues that plague communities of color. And if you want to learn about POC–check this out.
Colorism is a huge deal in communities of POC. It’s no different in the Latin community. Sierra’s aunt is the character set to antagonize her in this area. She questions Sierra about Robbie and says, “If he’s darker than the bottom of your foot, he’s no good for you!” Gosh, I immediately recalled how my grandmother told me not to have a baby by a dark-skinned man or else I’d have dark black babies. But wait, Aunt Rosa continues to attack her niece, “…this is what happens. You let her keep her hair all wild and nappy like this…” I cringed. This is so true and happens often. (Even my Grandma looked at my afro and said about the white folks who hired me, “Guess they said, ‘We got us a lil’ ol’ pickaninny.'”)
Older doesn’t forget to keep it real with what goes on in minority communities across America. On a corner in Brooklyn, Sierra recalls a few memories. One being the death of a friend who’d been killed by cops. As Sierra looks around the area, she sees how it’s transformed with expensive coffee shops and hip, young white kids due to gentrification or better known as “The Takeover.” This is what makes urban fantasy so appealing. It keeps the fantasy part, but allows the story to be connected to reality.
Sierra’s tough. She has the weight of the world on her shoulders. She has to figure out the mysteries and learn to use her power as an artist, even when chased by haints. She has to do all of this even though her grandfather, holder of secrets, has withheld information from her due to gender inequalities. Yep, she’s a girl and not a coveted boy. I love that she’s strong, but also a girl. She has her moments where she wants to cry. That’s real.
The whole gender thing is addressed by her grandmother, who’s become a goddess of sorts. When Sierra second guesses herself, Grandmother puts her in place with a little tough love. “Sierra, stop second guessing yourself. There isn’t time for all that.” You have to love her grandmother’s straight talk!
There is so much to love about SHADOWSHAPER. Google the reviews and you’ll see. More importantly, I urge my fellow writers who are not POC to read this book. Recently, I gave a presentation on how to write characters of color. One of the guidelines that should be adhered is for our allies to read works by people of color. Learn how we identify and describe ourselves, our families and our world. SHADOWSHAPER is the perfect start!
- New York Times review of SHADOWSHAPER