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In 'Shadowhouse Fall,' Magical Threats Map Real-World Peril

Amal El-Mohtar is the Hugo Award-winning author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.

A couple of years ago, when I reviewed Shadowshaper — the first book in Daniel José Older's Shadowshaper Cypher series — I mentioned how quickly it affected me with its depiction of extended families, language, art, and the vibrant reality of a magical Brooklyn where the villains of the piece are gentrification and white supremacy. Now, Older is back with a sequel that hits even closer to home, as Sierra Santiago and her friends stand together against more intimate evils.

Sierra is a graffiti artist and shadowshaper, able to summon and transform spirits through her art. At the end of the first book, she accepted her secret family legacy, uniting the other shadowshapers among her friends and family and teaching them to develop their powers. But their rising strength has attracted the attention of a group of unfriendly sorceresses who see Sierra and her Shadowhouse as dangerous rivals. As magical threats unfold against a backdrop of school bigotry and police brutality, Sierra and her chosen family must fight back.


Everything I loved about Shadowshaper is found in Shadowhouse Fall, but sharper and fiercer, pushed harder and farther. The love and loyalty Sierra and her friends feel for each other is all the more affecting for being forged in fire: They walk through metal detectors into school every morning, endure and resist casual assaults on their personhood and bodies in relentless routine. As with Shadowshaper, the parts I loved best were the characters, the exuberance of these people's voices, the intimacy and honesty of their interactions. I loved seeing more of Sierra's relationship with her best friend Bennie, more of Izzy and Tee's romance, more of Juan and Pulpo's devotion to each other. All of these relationships are complex and full of friction, and the sparks they give off illuminate important facets of the story.

I also appreciated, deeply, how inextricable the book's magical threat is from the urgency and immediacy of its real-world threats — the confrontations with police, the viciousness of criminalizing dissent even in high school, and the pain of addressing specifically anti-black racism going back generations in Sierra's own family. That last was the most riveting aspect for me, as I turned pages so quickly I got paper cuts: The danger in this book stems from an inheritance that doesn't ask Sierra's consent, that wants to force her blackness into a story of which she wants no part. There is a system for organizing the world that has decided her place in it, regardless of whether she accepts it or not. She says as much in a conversation with one of her grandfather's shadowshaping friends:

"This isn't my world, my magic. I don't ... I don't want to play."

Crane nodded sadly. "Unfortunately, it's not up to you."


This is the core of the book, its plot driven by the tension between Sierra's desire to live as she is and the magical world's desire to absorb her into its tidy taxonomy — one that, conveniently, depicts her as a monster:

The Mistress of Shadows hung suspended over a thrashing ocean. Lightning tore through the dark sky behind her. She wore a shredded gown. An elaborate blue-and-orange skull mask covered three quarters of her face, its deathly grin matching her own vicious smile. Rows and rows of razor-sharp fangs lined her gums, and a forked tongue slid out of one side. The Mistress's skin shone with a deathly gray hue, and her hair exploded around her in wild silver locks that seemed to writhe in the throes of the ocean wind. It looked more like La Llorona, the mythical phantom who had murdered her own children and wandered the world haunting kids' nightmares, than like anything Sierra would want to be.

Throughout Shadowhouse Fall, Sierra and her friends come up against teachers, security guards and police officers with this same dynamic, part of a system that wants to sort them into the most degraded position possible while they stand and proclaim their wholeness, the truth of their humanity, the unfairness of the deck stacked hundreds of years deep against them and their families. Ultimately, it's in resistance — in art, in music, in chants and marches and protests — that their magic takes root.

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