I think that YA science fiction and fantasy occupies a strange place within the larger SFF landscape. At the same time that it is often ignored by "purists" and readers of "adult" SFF, it doesn't exactly need or ask for those readers to approve or validate it. Markets being what they are, YA typically outsells more "mature" books, which I'm sure irks the fuck out of certain people and leads to very asinine and damaging discussions of what is "really" SFF and what, well, isn't. Now I have my own opinions on genre in general, but I can't deny that there is something that makes a book more solidly YA. Kind of. At least, I believe that there are elements that make a book more solidly YA regardless of how they are marketed (Because really, The Wheel of Time isn't YA? Because the books are a thousand pages long or something? Really? Really?).
And Shadowshaper is the embodiment of what YA science fiction and fantasy can be, a novel that explores family and culture and art and generational change. What makes the story YA? I'd argue that it's the focus and the celebration of the power of young people to redress wrongs, to bring justice out of injustice, and to create a better world. There is such a feel of possibility in the story, that the young people are not children waiting for guidance from adults, are not idiots or pawns or chosen ones. They are people first, not as old or experienced as they will be but there is also power there, that they have new ways of thinking, new ways of conceptualizing a future where they can have agency and where they can escape the cycles of oppression that seek to maintain the status quo.
But I suppose I should speak a bit about the plot? Is that how book reviews work? Hmm. Well, the story does an amazing job with its cast of characters, focusing on Sierra, a young woman who, unbeknownst to her, is from a family in the middle of a supernatural struggle that's been simmering for generations. The Shadowshapers are individuals capable of channeling spirits through their art. Spoken word, music, or, in Sierra's case, visual art. Of course, her heritage has been hidden from her and there's quite the tangled web surrounding why, family dramas and expectations and prejudices. The novel does an excellent job of showing the ways that parents damage their children, the ways that children rebel and, in some instances, only succeed in passing on new traumas. But Sierra is sharp and indomitable, with a keen eye for justice and a great group of friends. There's some light romance, as well, which is pulled off well, never eclipsing Sierra's character while allowing to explore her attractions and giving her someone her own age to explore her powers with.
What makes Shadowshaper so compelling to me, though, is how it gives Sierra and her friends the choice and the power of where to go next. They are fighting not only against an incursion from a white dude trying to steal the power of their culture to further himself (a nice commentary on the line between anthropology and appropriation), but also against the problems within that culture, the misogyny and roles that stifle, that prevent people from being happy and empowered. And Sierra is very effective at cutting through the bullshit and making some very difficult decisions. She's faced not only with protecting herself and her family and her culture, but also looking at all of it with a critical eye. What results is the great triumph of the novel as YA, which is that it allows the characters to figure it out on their own.
Which I think is what I like most about the novel, that even faced with beings ancient and powerful, Sierra doesn't give up her agency. She refuses to accept the old prophecies and the old systems and instead sets about making a new one with her friends, one where everyone is welcome and where everyone has a chance to thrive. And it's that hope and that strength that is free of jaded resentment of "kids these days" that makes this book important not just for kids (though this is exactly the kind of story I'd recommend for young readers) but for adults as well (because it gives some much needed perspective and hope). The novel is rich and empowering and uplifting and fun, and it's also complex and expertly constructed. It's YA, both in its accessibility and its message, but that doesn't mean that adults couldn't learn a thing or two from it as well.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 for holy crap is that final battle intense and ALL THE YES!!!
Negatives: nope. nothing here. move along.
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 "why can't this get fourteen books?" see our full rating system here.
POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.
REFERENCE: Older, Daniel José. Shadowshaper [Arthur A. Levine, 2015]