As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve encountered a number of urban fantasy books over the years that are firmly set in our world and give a wonderful sense of the cities in which they are located, and I’m pleased to say that Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older is one of these!

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book or where we learn something about the history, geography, and/or people of that state. Right now we are in New York.

This is one of our Young Adult picks for New York City, but where The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo was somewhat lacking in setting, Shadowshaper is fantastic! Both books are really good, and have a lot to say about the experience of young women of color growing up in New York City. In both books we learn more about both their cultural backgrounds and the challenges they face as part of learning who they are–both to themselves and to the world around them.

But Shadowshaper really gives us a feel for the places.

All over Brooklyn, folks were heading out to their stoops and strolling the avenues to take in another warm New York night. … They were fast-walking down Lafayette toward downtown Brooklyn. Some little kids zipped past on scooters. A group of middle-aged women sat in lawn chairs outside a brownstone, sipping beers and laughing.

There are a number of scenes that take place in Prospect Park, which is almost 600 acres of green space near Bed-Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant) in Brooklyn, where the main character, Sierra, (and author Daniel Jose Older) lives.

She stopped to catch her breath on the wide avenue where the spiraling mansions of Park Slope met the edge of Prospect Park. … [T]he park’s darkness seemed welcoming somehow, its shushing leaves beckoning her from across the street. When Sierra was little, Grandpa Lázaro and Mama Carmen used to take her there for picnics. Each tree and stone brought with it a story, and little Sierra could dance for hours, imagining the adventures those silent field dwellers may have seen. When she became a teenager, the quiet and beauty of the park was her solace when the rest of the world just seemed too overwhelming to handle.

We also get some scenes with the older men of Sierra’s community playing Dominoes, a staple of the Latinx community, and trading commentary and insults. But since the premise of the magical system in the book is street art, we get some wonderful descriptions of murals, and a brief introduction to memorials in street art. (The Brooklyn Street Art site has some great examples and lots of images to see more.)

Sierra gazed at the old man’s sad face. Robbie had captured his essence perfectly: that big nose and the way his salt-and-pepper mustache had turned upward at either end to make room for his old-man smile. He had on the same brown cap Sierra remembered him wearing every time she went to visit her abuelo and the domino warriors at the Junklot.

The book doesn’t take place exclusively in Brooklyn–there are scenes at Columbia University and even Coney Island, and those locations are well-described as well.

[T]he wind whipped across Sierra’s face as they zipped north along the FDR. Manhattan was a towering mass of skyscrapers on their left. To the right, the East River sparkled orange in the midday sun. … It was hard to believe that the wide-open, ultramanicured campus of Columbia University was in the same city as Bed-Stuy. Sierra actually gasped when they walked in through the front gates and stood surrounded by all those pillared temples of knowledge and lush lawns.

There’s some interesting commentary on the subject of anthropology, and it wasn’t lost on me that the book’s bad guy is a white dude whose cultural appropriation gets way out of hand.

“He was a big anthro dude, specifically the spiritual systems of different cultures, yeah? But people said he got too involved, didn’t know how to draw a line between himself and his”—she crooked two fingers in the air and rolled her eyes—“subjects. But if you ask me, that whole subject-anthropologist dividing line is pretty messed up anyway.” “What do you mean?” … “Who gets to study and who gets studied, and why? Who makes the decisions, you know?”

And the train scenes in Shadowshaper are the ones I was expecting in The Subway Girls–gritty, dirty, and real, touching all the senses.

After what seemed like forever, but was really only fifteen minutes, the bright train lights finally came flooding around the corner. Sierra felt a flush of excitement. Whatever happened, this train would bring them that much closer to Lucera. A scruffy homeless guy was laid out across four seats, stinking up the whole car. They sat on the opposite end. A few seats over, two well-dressed Russian guys slept with their heads on each other’s shoulders, sure to wake up in a concerned flurry at their stop and pretend it had never happened.

Overall, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older was a wonderful addition to our list for New York City, as well as a good read in general. I’m interested in checking out Older’s online essays about “race, power, and publishing,” and his adult urban fantasy series Bone Street Rumba. (By the way, I love that Older named Sierra’s school after Octavia Butler, one of my favorite authors!)

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