Shadowshaper: The Shadowshaper Cypher, Book 1

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
Shadowshaper: The Shadowshaper Cypher, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Art-filled urban fantasy has outstanding Afro-Latina hero.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

The author lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, where the story's set. Readers will learn how gentrification has changed the neighborhood and the diverse cultures that reside there. Plus a tidbit about some African funeral traditions. The main character's family converses in Spanish.

Positive Messages

Take pride in your heritage, from where your ancestors come from to the traits passed down to you. Stand up against prejudice and sexism -- even within your own family. Rely on friends for support. Find your own bravery.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sierra is a Puerto Rican New Yorker with an Afro -- not your typical fantasy book character. She's already confident about who she is -- likes her hair, doesn't mind that she has a bit of belly fat. Her challenge is to be heard and understood by her family, each member with a different prejudice and idea about who she should be. She deals with these frustrations well and comes out braver and even more herself in the end.

Violence

Older characters die (not described), and their corpses are possessed. They chase and fight teens, none of whom sustain lasting injuries beyond a broken nose. Some macabre descriptions: a body found, dead eye sockets pushed in, a dead face crushed. A boy punched at a club. Talk of violence in the neighborhood: shootings, friends roughing up a man for beating his girlfriend. Talk of main character's grandmother dying from liver cancer, her grandfather suffering a stroke.

Sex

Kissing and straight and LGBTQ relationships. A teen boy takes his shirt off to show a girl his tattoos when they're alone in her bedroom. He puts it on again before they dance.

Language

Swearing in English and Spanish. "Ass" used often, once in Spanish. "Damn," "BS," "bastards" used less. A junkyard dog is named Cojones -- "balls" in Spanish. A middle finger to catcallers on the street. "Eat s--t" said once in Spanish.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

No drinking or smoking by teen characters, but they are surrounded by adults who smoke cigarettes and cigars and people drinking in clubs. Men playing dominos outside spike their drinks with rum.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Shadowshaper is author Daniel Jose Older's first book for teens and the first book in this Brooklyn-set fantasy series with a Latina hero named Sierra. There's much here about honoring your heritage, and Sierra, with her confidence, natural hair, and pride in her Puerto Rican roots, gets our highest Role Model rating. Fantasy violence gets a little gross when teens fight dead, possessed bodies. Eye sockets are pushed in and a head is crushed. The teens don't sustain lasting injuries beyond a broken nose. Kissing doesn't last long, and only adult characters drink and smoke. There's swearing in English and Spanish: "Ass" is inserted in conversation a lot, and it doesn't go beyond "eat s--t," uttered in Spanish.

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What's the story?

In SHADOWSHAPER, Sierra has just started her summer vacation and decides to spend some of it painting a mural in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Up high on scaffolding with her paintbrushes, she spots something very strange on a mural across the way. It's the rapidly fading picture of a man crying a real tear. And then things just get stranger when Sierra heads home. Her grandfather, Lazaro, generally unable to talk after a stroke, tells her, "They are coming. For us. For the shadowshapers." And Sierra needs to find an artist named Robbie whom she knows from school. He will help her. When Sierra heads out for the night with her friends, she finds Robbie and peppers him with questions. Before he can say much about what he knows about shadowshapers, people who can coax friendly spirits into their art, something very unfriendly interrupts them -- a man who looks barely alive, repeating "Sierra" in a raspy voice. After Sierra escapes him, she finds out he was a friend of her grandfather's who went missing and is now a walking dead host for spirits who want to hurt Sierra and her family.

Is it any good?

Readers will flock to this book for the outstanding Afro-Latina lead character and stay for the art-infused fantasy storytelling. If you stripped away the shadowshaper spirit part, the story would still fascinate. We follow Sierra to her home, where she faces prejudices from her own family -- sexism from her grandfather and racism from her aunt -- and out with her friends, navigating their gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. A scene at a brand-new hipster coffee shop is both full of humor and astute social commentary.

And then there's this whole spirit world accessed through deep cultural connection and art. Sierra slowly discovers her gifts as this world begins to fade. Yet there's more about the immigrant experience to ponder as the body count in Shadowshaper rises and the mystery builds. Sometimes the action falls a bit short of exciting -- you're sure Sierra will jump at the chance to use her cool new powers, and she doesn't think of it until after you're yelling at her through the book, stupidly hoping she'll hear you -- but the heroism wins out in the end. Overall a great start to a unique fantasy series.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the trip to the coffee shop in Shadowshaper. What do the teen characters like about it? What don't they like? How does this scene address the conflicts that arise with gentrification?

  • How do you think the shadowshaper spirit elements work with the realistic urban setting? 

  • Will you read more in this series? What did you like best about it?

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