Weekly Reads: Shadowshaper, If I Was Your Girl

Hello y’all, and welcome back to Weekly Reads!

Obviously this past week, I read all of the stuff in my quick & messy round-ups for the #24in48 Readathon (Saturday and Sunday), but I also managed to fit in a couple of other (short) reads. so let’s talk about them!

As promised, I’m trying to get more diverse in my reading up in here. (Characters and voices outside of my own experience.)

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper

Premise: A girl from Brooklyn discovers that she can channel the energy of spirits through her art—but she’s not the only one.

The Good: In theory, Shadowshaper is easy to pitch. The use of setting is great; Sierra’s power is interesting, original, vividly described, and from a neat source; the connection to family is refreshing in a genre that usually fridges parents and any helpful older family members; and in theory, I like the characters.

The Bad: …but in practice, this book is just too short. It clocks under 300 pages in my copy. Which isn’t a reason to call it too short. But the journey from the first inkling of discovery to fully-powered fighting is short. The romance feels very rushed. The villain feels very mustache-twirling evil. The characters jumble together a bit and feel underdeveloped (we are told and not shown their traits, because there’s no time to get to know them). It feels a little preachy, which I hate saying because I’m very glad when books address racism/sexism, but the book lacked so much flesh beyond immediately pushing the plot that, for example, a scene where the protagonist’s otherwise-irrelevant aunt makes racist remarks and gets called out feels like it’s a noticeable lump.

I liked that scene on its own, but it felt out of place because it didn’t do anything to further the main plot but make the protagonist walk away? And that’s the issue. When you carve away all the connective tissue in a book to bare-bones hero’s journey + teen romance, everyday moments feel out of place and the characters that belong in them feel extraneous.

(This review is also too short.)

Overall: I don’t really know what to make of Shadowshaper. There were some really memorable images and ideas in it, but it was also really difficult to emotionally connect with the characters and get invested in the action even though I really wanted to. In theory, it’s just the type of book I want (great concept), but in practice, it’s just not what I hoped. A real bummer, because I want to root for this author.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
If I Was Your Girl

I have the plainer UK cover, but I read that the cover model for this book is actually a trans girl, so I had to give props to this one.

Premise: A shy new girl moves to a small town in the southern U.S. to have a fresh start with her estranged father, and of course she meets a cute boy—but also, she’s trans.

The Good: The story of the romance, friendships, and family relationships in this book, as well as the effect of the setting, would all be completely banal—except Amanda is experiencing everything through the lens of the secret she’s keeping and relating her experiences back to her difficult past. And even though she finds a lot of love with the people around her, it’s crushing. (In a good way.) She struggles with wanting so desperately to fit in and be liked while also trying to adjust to existing in a new way and wanting to share her whole story with the new people who care about her. It was impossible for me to not get drawn into her (conflicting) feelings.

The ….: I mean, the plot is honestly very rote (and so are the subplots), but it works because of Amanda’s perspective. But Amanda’s perspective is mostly defined by the fact that she’s trans. (All of her interests and traits are directly related back to that part of her identity in her head.)

Which is good—there just aren’t YA books where trans girls get to a) exist, b) have cute romances, and I am so glad this is a book and that I can imagine Amanda’s experiences. And it honestly makes sense that this is the way Amanda sees everything because she’s still negotiating her identity. But I also hope that more books come out with trans girl leads and we can get some teens who have that gender identity and plenty of other stuff to focus on.

(This is also one of those books where an older teen protagonist reads as a much younger teen, but since she was new to living in her identity and some people are late bloomers, I kind of glossed it over? But she definitely doesn’t read as 18/19.)

The Bad: Amanda straight-up new-girl-in-schools it Twilight-style, starting out with everyone wanting to be her friend and guys wanting to date her right away. (Maybe I’m just not from a small enough town, but it’s hard to envision this happening in any high school.) It’s a trope, I get it, but it’s a tired one.

Minor spoilers in this paragraph: Probably the worst thing this book does is depict/talk about instances of sexual assault twice as almost throwaway situations? Various characters come out to Amanda with secrets as kind of an ongoing theme—and in one case, the secret that comes out is related to sexual assault, but just acts as a catalyst for Amanda to open up, which feels problematic. I was still iffy on where that character’s arc would go when a later instance of sexual assault came up and the trauma from it was also brushed over and not really dealt with. I’m not anti-depicting sexual assault wholesale, but it feels cheap when it’s used in a narrative simply as an event that happens among many other events. (And then the trauma that causes for a character isn’t dealt with or is given short shrift.)

Also, I wish some of the characters beyond Amanda felt more defined and real. Character introductions were often a bit clunky. The dialogue wasn’t particularly strong, and a lot of character moments/revelations felt less like we were getting to know those people and more like set-up for Amanda to be lovely and nice to everyone, or for people to be lovely and nice to her. (Which made both those characters and Amanda feel more generic. The particularities of Amanda’s past experiences made her feel more real—but her relations with others in the forward-moving narrative felt more blank-slateish.)

Overall: It’s hard to qualify this book because regardless of its mechanical pros and/or cons, it’s important and necessary. Most people should probably read it in any case, you know?

I mostly enjoyed reading this, other than its iffy approach to sexual assault, and had a lot of feelings and got to imagine a lot of experiences I haven’t and won’t have, so on that basis I would recommend it—with the caveat that if you are triggered by sexual assault as a plot device, you need to stay away from this one. (Although also: trans women face a higher rate of sexual assault than other groups, so I can see why it would become a topic in this book, it’s just…not handled with care, in my opinion.)

But I am also aware that if this plot had been the same but the protagonist were cis, the book would be as boring as plain toast and I’d have issues with it major enough to DNF it. (Amanda’s trans identity is the entire “conflict.”)

On the other other hand, I liked its very balanced ending. Like I said. Hard to qualify.

Well, that’s my wrap-up for this week, and I’ll see you again on Tuesday! Thanks for reading!

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