I’m rather annoyed by the label ‘message fiction,’ as I feel like it implies everything else doesn’t have a message. Yet I suppose there is a sort of value in the term and implication about the focus of the book. Shadowshaper isn’t a <i>message</i> book as much as it is a values book, a modern urban fantasy book that solidly representational, the sort of book that is likely to drive Bad Luppies into writing ranty blog posts. However, despite the values focus, it is a solid story, the sort of book I’d give any young reader.
It begins with Sierra Santiago working on a street mural. As she’s finishing for the day, she realized that the mural of a deceased local man appears to be crying. At home, her grandfather who has been rendered incomprehensible by a stroke suddenly speaks clearly, telling Sierra “they are coming… for the shadowshapers,” and to talk to “that boy, Robbie,” as well as apologizing profusely. Sierra’s unable to get more information from him, but at a local party that night, she hunts down Robbie, a tall, attractive Haitian teen with a talent for drawing. Before they can get into details about the shadowshapers, they are interrupted by a man shambling through the party. Before long, Sierra is on a mission to discover what’s happening around her, aided by Robbie, her best friend Bennie, her family and even the university librarian.
The story is solid. The shape of it feels young adult, with occasional preoccupations with changing identity within the family, focus on friends and romantic attraction. I thought it grew reasonably organically, and kept a fast pace going. It did not require the stupid “go-off-on-my-own” device or the equally tired “all-adults-are-stupid” set-up. Writing was solid. Description conveyed a sense of place. Older did shift into more vernacular speech for dialogue (“Imma” showed up quite a bit, as in “I’m going to go”), particularly with the teens, which might add realism, but for me added some awkwardness. The texting mainly annoyed me, but it’s an element other readers may enjoy. The fantasy elements were about equally split between the art and the corpses chasing them, which was a little surprising to me–I expected more focus on the art-based power but it makes sense by the end.
What is remarkable about it is how ordinary so much of it feels, using characters and situations often stereotyped as Other. Sierra is lives in Brooklyn, New York, has a mom who teaches, a dad that works, and two older brothers who have gown up and are active in their communities. Her clique is a group of teens who are smart, have diverse interests, and includes an interracial lesbian couple. There’s older men that hang out on the corner, but they are the ones who self-publish the newspaper and work to preserve the community. Sierra’s kind to her disabled grandfather, friendly to everyone and resourceful in problem-solving. In short, despite what some readers may see as unfamiliar trappings, it will feel very ordinary in a way most readers should be able to access. It’s also pleasant to not have Sierra and her friends’ experiences fetishized.
At the same time, Older does a nice job of integrating common experiences a person of color has in a white-dominated society. Sierra experiences some instances of mild racism when she ventures out of her usual haunts. There’s also a small ongoing motif about gentrification. He also nicely touches on issue of body imagery and ‘natural hair’ in relation to self-esteem and culture, with Sierra’s aunt being the worst critic of her natural locks. Understand, to me none of these felt like prominent parts of the story–they were just the bits that fill in a character’s life. I think it provides a valuable representational experience.
Overall, I am not a fan of the young adult genre, so elements that don’t impress me might strongly appeal to genre readers. There are a few YA books that are amazing standouts (The Scorpio Races, Fly by Night, Daughter of Smoke & Bone)–but Shadowshaper is a solid contribution to the genre, worthy of gifting to the YA fans/teens in your life.