The Shadowshaper Cypher
by Daniel José Older
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
(Click subsequent titles to skip to that part of the review)
Novel #1: Shadowshaper
Novella #1: Ghost Girl in the Corner
Novella #2: Dead Light March
Novel #2: Shadowhouse Fall
This series is generally considered to be in the Young Adult category. Amazon says age 12 and up. I say way, way up from that, since as a 67-year-old, I can assure you it can be appreciated by all ages. Another example is that Shadowshaper was nominated for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Literature, as well as the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult literature. The story is set in Brooklyn, among second and third generation immigrants, with a wide range of character ages. Sierra María Santiago is an Afro-Puerto Rican-American teenager, but we also see several members of her family, including her mother, father, and grandfather (and grandmother in a fantasy sequence), as well as many others from her neighborhood and school. It's a vibrant community, connected by heritage, respect, and friendship, as well as a growing apprehension about gentrification. Sierra is a budding artist, usually content to draw in notebooks and keep things to herself, but she is encouraged by Manny, the publisher of a local newspaper, to join a group that has been painting murals on older buildings, as well as on the walls of a newer, but stalled, construction project. Her grandfather had suffered a stroke, and had been mostly incoherent for nearly a year, but he surprises Sierra one day by telling her quite clearly she must finish her mural, and quickly, because "they are coming for us, coming for the shadowshapers."
She can't get any more information out of him, no explanation of who or what shadowshapers are, or who might be coming for them. Only that she should get Robbie to help her, and then continual mutterings of, "lo siento, lo siento." She knows a Robbie, a Haitian boy at her school, but is puzzled by how her grandfather would know him. Sierra asks her mother about shadowshapers, her mother denies knowing anything, but Sierra can tell she is lying. Later that evening at a party, Sierra confronts Robbie about it, who confirms knowledge of shadowshapers, but says it's complicated and puts off further explanation. Plus, they are interrupted by a commotion caused by a man she knows, Vernon. There's a problem with that though, since just that afternoon Manny had received the bad news that Vernon was dead. Thus, Sierra plunges headfirst into a mysterious world that had been around her all her life, but of which she had been unaware.
I'm not getting into the details of shadowshaping. It would be extremely easy to spoil a lot, since it's an exciting story, with wonderful characters, and I'm afraid if I started recounting more of the plot it would be difficult to stop. Sierra is a remarkable girl, smart and independent, but also loyal to family and community. She takes on a challenge of great responsibility, learning the tricks of shadowshaping with ease, as if it was always her destiny. That's because it was. She would have been initiated into the discipline at a much earlier age if not for the fact her parents objected, and her grandfather felt the responsibility should be reserved for men. He was perhaps resentful that it was his late wife, Sierra's grandmother, who had been the Lucera, essentially the grand matriarch of the shadowshapers. Sierra is adept at controlling and directing the shadows, but she also has a lot of help from her older brother Juan, who had been in on the family secret for years, along with Manny and Robbie, and close friends Bennie, Izzy, and Tee. Then there's Sierra's godfather, Neville, whom everyone calls Uncle, although I can't recall now to whom he might actually be related. I'm hoping that Older eventually gives us a story with him as the focus, whether novel or novella it doesn't matter. I'd read the hell out of that book.
There are still a couple of things I'm unsure of. Are all the shadows merely ghosts, lingering in this world until someone can free them from the mortal coil? Could some be more elemental spirits, faeries and the like, brought to these shores from other lands by those who believe in them? If so, it would seem logical that not all would be benevolent. There are other factors in play, including the Sisterhood of the Sorrows, whose agenda seems to be the elimination of the shadows, or at least the elimination of shadowshapers. Some foes are humans who have learned of this magical world and wish to bend the forces to their own will. Can we assume that Sierra and her friends will always be on the right side of the battle? Could their use of the shadow forces cause harm? Somehow I don't think Sierra would go down that path willingly, but others have been lead astray before. I don't know how many stories of this world Older might give us, but I'll be along for the ride as long as it lasts. The characters and the cityscapes are alive and exciting, over and above the fantasy setting. They all seem like real people Older knows personally, and the family dialog and the street banter sounds very realistic. I've never been to New York, am unfamiliar with the culture, but in a way I think I understand a bit of it now, and I'm anxious to learn more.
Ghost Girl in the Corner is a novella set about one month following the final events in Shadowshaper. At this time it is only available as an e-book, at a very reasonable price (99¢ last I checked). I believe Older has said it is possible the shorter stories might be collected in print at a later time, which leads me to believe there will be more than just the two published so far. It is a stand-alone story, but I don't think you can fully appreciate it without reading the novel first. Sierra does appear briefly, but isn't the main character. Instead it is Tee (Trejean), who has taken a job with the newspaper formally put out by Manny, the offices and presses of which are in the basement of a local church. In the earlier story, Tee and her girlfriend Izzy (Isake), along with several other friends, had been initiated into the shadowshaper world by Sierra. Several other people have been in and out of the offices for days, including a woman from the community organization that finances the publication, along with students hoping to become reporters. Tee wonders why she is the only one who can see or sense the ghost girl in the corner. She also doesn't understand why she keeps the information to herself.
The ghost never speaks, but when others are not around, her spirit insinuates itself within the linotype machine, and in this way she begins forming messages for Tee to read. It's slow going, with just a letter added to the clue at a time. The first word is "Help," but instead of the second being "Me" it is "Her" instead. Tee begins to think it has something to do with the disappearance of a girl from the neighborhood during the past week. She finally divulges some information to Izzy, and then Uncle Neville (remember Uncle Neville? I like Uncle Neville). Based on clues the ghost girl gives them, they settle on a likely suspect for the crime. Neville recognizes the ghost, and deduces she was probably a previous victim of their suspect. Tee, Izzy, and Neville travel upstate to where they think the girl might be held captive. They've guessed correctly, but then have to deal with the kidnapper and a local white supremacist group. Neville knows a lot of people, most of them being on the shadier side of the law, who are willing to help him out of difficult situations, but Tee helps out too with her rudimentary shadowshaping skills. Tee is going to have a lot of questions about Neville and his connections, but for now she has to be content that they've not only saved a life, they are apparently free from suspicion on the fate of the perpetrators. Something tells me we'll learn more in the future, that this is not be the last we'll see of Uncle Neville. I hope, I hope.
Dead Light March is a shorter novella (86 pages, compared to 109 for Ghost Girl), also only in e-book for now. This reintroduces characters and situations from the first novel, and except for one character added in Ghost Girl, it might actually work better being read before the other novella. In the first book, Sierra's main adversary was Jonathan Wick, an anthropologist who had learned of the shadowshapers and wanted their power. He had also been manipulated by the Sorrows, who I thought Sierra had defeated, but they're still around and looking for other humans to influence. This time they choose Mina Satorius, or maybe it was she who chose them. The Sorrows seem to confuse people by claiming they work through the House of Light. Most people associate light with goodness, so the opposite must mean the shadows are evil.
Mina was among a group of students vying for a job at the community newspaper, her claim to journalism being a comprehensive study of serial killers. The Sorrows direct her to a place she might find one to help with her mission. It seemed odd to me that she was a student at the same school as Sierra, Brooklyn's Octavia Butler High School (unfortunately not a real school), and yet she lived on Staten Island. It's not clear what brought her under the Sorrows' influence, since she initially seemed to be unaware of Sierra and the other shadowshapers.
The showdown this time comes during the festive West Indian Day celebrations on Labor Day, which Sierra's foes use as a distraction for their attack. Her brother Juan is also distracted by two other things, his new found infatuation with Sierra's best friend Bennie (Bennaldra), and his desire for his band to perform his radical new composition at the festival dance. Older is also a musician, and his descriptions of the band's performances are vivid and exciting, and that includes Izzy in her rap persona of King Impervious. Again, I don't want to go into any more detail. Sierra and the other shadowshapers are able to fight off the attack, but Mina and one of her cohorts survive and return to the Sorrows, to lick their wounds and prepare for the next battle. I'm looking forward to the next book, and hope it is not the last. There is so much more to explore around Brooklyn, more to learn about the history of the shadowshapers, so many great characters that could get individual focus in new novellas. I want this sequence to continue for a long, long time.
Shadowhouse Fall was released last September. As much as I was looking forward to it, I didn't pre-order, and didn't get it until Christmas, as a gift from my son. The first book began at the end of a school year, the second novella ended on Labor Day, after the new school year had started. At first I wasn't sure if the title simply meant the story would be taking place in the fall, or if something bad was going to happen to the shadowshapers, and their house would fall. Sierra and her friends, now also her shadowshaping partners, are intelligent, and most are doing well in school. That doesn't mean they like school very much. Several complain of how constricting the curriculum is, how they feel they could do as well on their own, tracking down books and other sources for the things that truly interest them. Now, they also have the world of shadowshaping to distract them, as well as the anxiety of knowing the Sorrows had not been defeated and will be out for a fight again.
Sierra has taken on a great burden as the new Lucera, with no preparation and minimal information on what the job will entail. She also continually doubts her ability, particularly her ability to know who to trust. The story opens in Prospect Park, as Sierra and a few others are practicing their 'shaping' skills. Not only has Sierra become adept at channeling shadow spirits through her body and into shapes of things she has drawn, she also has the ability to see things from the perspective of shadows nearby. She senses one somewhere else in the park, but can't identify it. In searching through the woods, she encounters Mina Satorious, who had been working for the Sorrows in the previous story, but she and Sierra never interacted in that struggle, so Sierra was unaware of the connection. Until Mina volunteers that information, which immediately puts Sierra on the defensive. Mina says she's had a change of heart, but Sierra is skeptical. Then Mina presents her with a deck of cards, similar to tarot, but specifically about the various houses of the spirit world now opening up to Sierra, including Shadowhouse and the House of Light. Only one other is involved in the action in this book, the House of Iron, although another is mentioned at the very end, Blood Häus, so it's likely to be featured in a future story. I'm not sure how many others there may be. Some of the cards are blank, as the Blood Häus card had been earlier, so its power must be increasing.
New characters are introduced, on both sides of the battle. Not all will survive to the end. There are a couple of things I felt were telegraphed ahead of time, but mostly it's unpredictable and exciting. There are multiple times when Sierra (and the reader) can't be sure who is telling the truth. Beyond the fantasy element, there are also sociological side stories. In the first book it was the fear of gentrification, here it's police harassment and overreach, including in the schools. As to the title, the action does take place in the fall, the climax coming on Halloween night, but the other possibility was also true. Somewhat. Both Shadowhouse and the House of Light have fallen, but not in the way you might assume. In a way that benefits Sierra and her crew. There will be more to this story, only I'm not sure when. No new title has been announced yet as far as I know, but I'm sure I'll read it when it comes around. This one has lots of danger, lots of thrills, lots of magical shadowshaping skills, as rapper King Impervious (Izzy) might sing. Hearty recommendations for the entire saga so far.
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