Shadowhouse Fall: The Shadowshaper Cypher, Book 2

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
Shadowhouse Fall: The Shadowshaper Cypher, Book 2 Book Poster Image
Compelling fantasy gets into race issues of spirits, police.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Shows ways to protest, both traditional -- chanting and singing to gather a crowd -- and modern -- uploading videos to social media. Plus mentions of the terminated "Stop and Frisk" program in New York City, and the overall uneasy relationship between people of color and the police that makes news almost daily. Author lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, where story is set. Readers will learn how gentrification has changed the neighborhood and the diverse cultures residing there. Main character's family converses in Spanish.

Positive Messages

Overcoming injustice and finding a voice to speak up against it. As in the first book, there's still much about taking pride in your heritage, from where your ancestors come from to the traits passed down to you. There's even more here on relying on friends for support and deciding to trust those closest to you with your truth.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sierra is a Puerto Rican New Yorker with an Afro -- not your typical fantasy book character. She was already confident about her identity in the first book. Here she works to overcome fear of losing loved ones. To keep them safe, she distances herself from them at first, instead of relying on friends and family for support. In the first book she seemed almost flawless. Here she feels more like a real urban teen, skipping school sometimes; talking over those who annoy her, even if they are providing life-and-death info; even inhaling once when offered pot. Some of Sierra's spirit protectors are young people of color who were killed by police, all wearing hoodies -- the author is not shying away from this tough topic. Police and school security usually feel like the enemy here, caring nothing about justice. The reasonable people in positions of power exist, but don't have enough power to make a difference. It's adults of color in the community who step up and help (Sierra's godfather and a lawyer friend). Teens help themselves with social media and networks of protesting friends.

Violence

Teens are intimidated and handled roughly by police. One girl is maced. Some are taken to jail. Fighting with spirits ends in a few injuries, one a serious burn that is magically healed. A family member of the main character dies in his sleep and they hold a funeral with a casket viewing. Two fistfights, one quick, one very bloody. A gun threatens, then goes off with no injuries. A girl is hit by a car and survives. Many mentions of how a character's brother was killed by police. His spirit and those of others killed by police are always around.  

Sex

Kissing. Straight and LGBTQ relationships.

Language

Swearing in English and Spanish. Many uses of "ass" and many more uses of "s--t" than the first book. The bigger swear words are only in short form and rare: "eff" and "mofo." Plus "bitch," "d--k," "damn," and "hell." The "N" word. A junkyard dog is named Cojones ("balls" in Spanish), but his name gets shortened to "Cojo." 

Consumerism

Many mentions of YouTube, Twitter, and Scooby-Doo.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A scene of spiked-punch drunkenness at a funeral with puking afterward -- the character is probably 20. Main teen character inhales pot offered by an adult smoking, coughs, doesn't want it back. Admits that she tried it twice eight months before and not since. Mention that a character as a teen used to sell pot to a school security guard. People at a club smoking and drinking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Shadowhouse Fall is the second book in the Brooklyn-set Shadowshaper Cypher fantasy series with a Latina hero named Sierra. With many more complex social themes swirling about, some extra swearing ("s--t" uttered frequently in teen conversations), and a little teen smoking and drinking, we've inched the age up from 12 for Book 1, Shadowshaper, to 13 here. Be ready for some intense conversations with teen readers afterward about the treatment of people of color by police, how this relates to what they see in their neighborhood or on the news, and the best way to protest injustices. Here, teens are intimidated and handled roughly by police. One girl is maced, and some are taken to jail. Spirits that protect theses teens are called "Black Hoodies" and are all young people killed by police. Author Daniel Jose Older, a resident of the neighborhood he's writing about, does not shy away from these tough topics.

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What's the story?

In SHADOWHOUSE FALL, Sierra is just training her newly minted shadowshapers into passable spirit-wranglers at the local park when she's interrupted by a malevolent spirit. She can feel something stalking nearby through her specially tuned senses as the new head of the shadowshapers. When she almost catches up to it, she finds her classmate Mina instead, who's desperate to talk to her about the Sorrows, a rival group of spirits who want control over the shadowshapers. Mina tries to hand her a tarot-like card from a deck she stole from the Sorrows. A game is in play, and Sierra needs her card to harness power against the Sorrows. Sierra tries to dismiss Mina, not wanting any part of the game, but bad things begin to happen to Sierra's shadowshaping friends: The police are usually hard to deal with in her neighborhood, but now they really seem to be after them. Sierra realizes she needs the whole deck of cards and the power they hold to keep her loved ones safe. She's ready to play their game and win.

Is it any good?

This urban fantasy doubles down on the spirit-world conflict and astute social commentary, and is successful at weaving them both together seamlessly. Can't say that about a lot of fantasy novels. And Shadowshaper Cypher is probably the first series to feature a teen girl of color as a fantasy hero battling racist spirits and corrupt law enforcement all at once. On Sierra's side: Black Hoodies, spirits of young people who were killed by police. Just as Sierra is so sure of her own mind, author Daniel Jose Older is not shying away from his perspective. It's dangerous in this Twitter-shaming world, which makes it braver and more refreshing in a way, even if the author's views don't entirely match every one of his readers'. Here's hoping that instead of closed-minded controversy, Shadowhouse Fall provokes some great discussion with teens and their parents who are struggling with how to address these very timely topics.

The fantasy story really ramps up here, with more curious characters and a whole tarot-like power-play game. It adds a nice layer of mystery and keeps readers guessing. Who should Sierra trust? There's a West Side Story feel when rival factions clash (as in, it's more posturing and trash talk than anything). The action is sometimes hard to follow, especially since the rules of how spirits can harm or otherwise affect the living aren't clearly drawn out. Readers may feel at times, but the story still excites. Just as exciting: This thought-provoking series is just getting started.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about so many tough social themes in Shadowhouse Fall. Readers aren't often used to hearing about the treatment of people of color by police from this perspective. Has it altered your perspective?

  • With the "Black Hoodies," the author will definitely provoke a reaction on an already heated topic. What's your reaction? What do you think the opposing reaction is and why?

  • How is the author's asserting his opinion this strongly an act of bravery? Are you that brave to do the same? How does social media often treat strong opinions?

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