Head Writer, Pycera
Imagine the typical plot line of a modern YA fantasy.
You’ve got it, right?
Teen discovers they have mystical powers. Teen tries out said mystical powers. Teen is shocked, amazed, maybe a little scared. Teen doesn’t want to go to the adults in their life; they definitely wouldn’t understand. So Teen gathers their courage and decides to tell their best friend what happened — you know, the friend they’ve known forever? The one who casually talks to their parents and knows where all the dishes go at their house? That friend. Teen tells that friend what’s going on, and that friend responds…how?
Or maybe, nervously, “Teen, maybe we should get you some help.”
That’s the way it always goes, right? Despite years of knowing Teen, despite having earned the best friend title, Best Friend is immediately dismissive. Best Friend might eventually believe in Teen’s mystical powers — but only after witnessing them in action, of course (and sometimes not even then)!
As someone who has read it time and time again, this trope is incredibly frustrating. It’s a cheap, easy way for an author to create conflict, and it devalues good human relationships by completely ignoring the level of trust that ought to exist between these supposed “best friends.”
So when I was reading Daniel José Older‘s Shadowshaper for our book club last month, and our heroine Sierra resolved to tell her best friend Bennie about her own experience with mystical powers, I barely suppressed the instinct to groan out loud. Here we go again, I thought. Man, I liked Bennie, and now we get to have That Fight.
You can imagine my shock (and frankly, amazement) when That Fight never came.
Instead, Bennie is supportive but cautious – especially about Robbie, Sierra’s potential love interest and fellow teen shadowshaper. Instead of a fight, we get this exchange:
“You can’t assume Robbie’s on our side.”
“What side are we on?”
“Our side. We on our side.” (p. 85)
And that’s the thing about Bennie and Sierra’s relationship. They’re undeniably different in many ways. Bennie has a penchant for button-downs, while Sierra chooses combat boots and ripped tees. Bennie is a self-proclaimed scientist, always looking for explanations, while Sierra is more intuitive, trusting her gut feelings and learning to shadowshape essentially by trial and error. But despite both surface and deeper differences, their relationship is altogether human. They have differing opinions, they communicate, they trust, and ultimately they are on their side, a side that belongs wholly to both of them.
Despite the attention I’ve given her here, Bennie isn’t Sierra’s only friend her own age, and indeed Sierra’s friendships with her fellow teens are only a few of the threads in the network that Older establishes in Shadowshaper. This post could just as easily have highlighted Sierra’s relationship to her godfather, her parents, her neighbors, the university library archivist, the neighborhood men who play dominos in the junkyard…well, you get the picture.
Shadowshaper fleshes out Sierra’s entire community, older and younger generations alike, something that is also often lacking in YA fantasy, where adults can be relegated to background characters unless they play a major part in the magical goings-on. Sierra and Bennie’s relationship and their demonstration of the level of trust that so often lacks in supposed fictional “best friends” is just one of the ways that Shadowshaper turns modern YA fantasy tropes on their heads, in the best possible way.
*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.
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