Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper - Daniel José Older

This is one hell of a series starter. 


Sierra discovers a family heritage she didn't know she had, and along with a motley crew of friends and relatives, explores a new world of magic and spirits. 


Oh how simple that plot can be boiled down to, but this is a really good book, and the plot itself is intricate and beautifully done. Every single time I thought "Oh noes, I see what's coming..." something else did. Even when the protagonist was merrily agreeing with me on what was probably going on, nope, we were both wrong. Furthermore ,it's well written, the characters are well rounded, self-consistent and diverse. 


If you'd like to read some contemporary Urban Fantasy, I highly recommend this. It's a YA book, but only as much as say, Fool's Assassin is. Or the Paksenarrion books.  Or Star Wars for that matter. Any regular YA fantasy reader will be right at home, but as someone who generally doesn't read YA other than things I am reading with my daughter, I can still recommend this.


Sierra's voice, and those of her crew of minions, comes across as utterly authentic. The way second and third generation immigrant kids wander between languages, often in the same sentence. There's a lot of sharp observation of the dynamics of immigrant families in general, easily observed when you are one, under the surface when you're not. The way the first generation clings in so many ways to the old country, while the second rejects it, trying to be as assimilated as possible (and yet, betrayed by their culture in a million ways), and by the third gen, how there's often an uneasy middle ground. Sierra runs up against both the wall of her Puerto Rican grandfather's antiquated ideas of gender politics, and her mother's wholesale rejection of "the old ways" right alongside her aunt's blatant racism, and that's just in her own family. 


Also the interaction between the group of teenagers. These are smart, witty, sassy kids, of course they are, it's a YA fantasy novel, but they each have a distinct voice and point of view, without falling into having everyone talk like the writers of the Gilmore Girls or Dawson's Creek wrote their dialogue. They're sloppy, they screw up, they're constantly-but jokingly-insulting each other, only to pull together like a fortified wall when an outsider threatens one of them. And they respect each others opinions, and don't always agree, something you rarely see in a book but I see all the time with my own kids and their friends.


And there's a wee romance, but there is no instalove or declaration of undying devotion. It's an unsure exploration of a possibility by a girl and a boy who aren't in the slightest bit sure what they're doing with each other yet, or what is coming next, and I thought it was pretty charming.


I could write quite an essay about all this, but I'll just point out this is well written and I liked it. That might seem obvious, but I didn't only like it because the main characters are all kinds of shades of brown. The fact it's unusually representative of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign is a bonus - tokenism and poorly written representation is, to be honest, worse than none at all.  


Google "Urban Music" and you get... hip hop. The music of the minority, inner city youth. Google "Urban Fiction" and you get... street lit. "Focussed on the dark side of city living", hip hop in fiction form. Google "Urban Fashion" what do you get? Hip hop fashion. Oddly the music and fashion (I don't know so much about the fiction) share an amazingly similar aesthetic in inner-city Stockholm and inner-city New York. The slinky folksy rhythms of Timbuktu from Sweden and the down-tempo electronic trip-hop of Tricky from the UK don't sound much like the Wu-Tang clan at all, but they're all recognisably part of a continuum (ok, my hip-hop references are out of date, deal with it :) Globalisation at work? Sure, it's partly that, but it's also simply that something in the very spirit of these art forms seems to speak to the same kind of kids, no matter which big city you're in. Urban is it's own aesthetic, in almost any art form around. 


Why then, is "Urban fantasy" a bunch of primarily middle class white dudes (ok, and some chicks) wielding primarily European based magic and interacting with European archetypes of fantasy. The fae. Vampires. Werewolves. Oh sure there's exceptions, but there's a definite template. Older purposefully set out to represent *his* urban experience, which is quite a different one, and he's done a fantastic job. There's not many books I hand on to my (Kiwi-Swedish immigrant child) daughter these days and practically force her to read, she's 16 and definitely has her own tastes, but this was one. And she promptly handed it off to her (Venezuelan) boyfriend, so that'll be an interesting report when I hear back, but books I recommend to her that she actually loves and recommends on are an even rarer thing!


And do go click that Timbuktu link above, it's like nothing you ever heard before, I'm pretty sure :) (The title means "Everyone wants to go to heaven, but few want to die")