The murals are weeping. This is the first thing that tips Sierra off that something strange is going on in her Brooklyn neighborhood in Daniel José Older’s fantastic urban fantasy Shadowshaper. I’d been meaning to read this book since I first heard Older speak on a panel at Book Expo America last summer and its gorgeous cover kept staring at me from large, blown-up posters. I finally got a chance to listen to the audiobook, read by Anika Noni Rose, which I highly recommend!
Set in the largely black and Latino communities of Brooklyn, Shadowshaper is about a teenage girl named Sierra who discovers that her family has a magical legacy—the ability to work with spirits through their art. They literally draw the nearby spirits of ancestors into their artwork, which then comes to life and can act out their will. Of course, Sierra’s grandfather never bothered to tell her about this power, because he felt this legacy should just be for men. But that leaves Sierra completely unprepared when she notices the magic beginning to fade from the murals on her streets and when unfriendly animated corpses start crashing local block parties. Sierra races to find friends who can help her learn about her family’s legacy in time to stop the man who threatens to destroy her community in his search for power.
Shadowshaper was such a breath of fresh air in a genre that has become overly steeped in the most mainstream of European cultural traditions—whether it’s Celtic fairies, Biblical angels and demons, or your run-of-the-mill vampires and werewolves. Instead, the supernatural elements in this novel are based on various indigenous and African beliefs that I was entirely unfamiliar with. Some of it reminded me of the magical realism characteristic of Latin-American literature. But then of course you have your straight up fantasy when the characters engage in an epic final battle played out through chalk drawings and wall murals that have been endowed with spirits.
Even more important than the diversity in fantasy elements is the diversity in the realistic elements of this book. This is urban fantasy, meaning that it’s set in the diverse metropolitan areas of our own world. The characters should reflect the true diversity of our society—and not just the side characters, as has been the growing trend lately. It really didn’t hit me until I saw this book, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman of color on the cover of a YA urban fantasy novel before. The novel had an even bigger impact on me, now that I’m actually living in the area of Brooklyn in which it is set. Issues that come up tangentially in the book like gentrification, racial tensions, and police brutality, all struck me as realistic depictions of the discourse that permeates these neighborhoods. Besides, not only is a variety of backgrounds for our characters important for the sake of representation, it also leads to more compelling characters with interests and experiences outside of what we usually encounter—like Sierra’s brother who is the lead singer in a salsa/thrash metal band. How cool is that?
While I love books that have strong roots in fantasy and/or Gothic fiction, it’s important that novels today move away from many of the problematic pitfalls of those genres. Both genres have been heavily steeped in imperialism from their inception and tend to present the world through a predominantly European/Euro-American lens. But no one group has a monopoly on the fantastic or the horrific! Shadowshaper is a perfect example of how to bring underrepresented voices into one of our most-beloved genres, and I hope its growing popularity is a sign that we’ll see many more books breaking down similar barriers in the future!