Book Review: Seven Deadly Shadows

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Seven Deadly Shadows
by Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani
YA Fantasy
288 pages
Published January 20, 2020 by Harper Collins

Kira Fujikawa wants nothing more than to fit in at her prestigious Kyoto high school, but her family is not as wealthy or as prestigious as her classmates’. She is bullied by the others girls in her class, no matter how she tries to keep her head down. Kira’s family is no help, either. Though her sister Ami adores Kira, she’s only six, and their older brother is too busy with his own schoolwork to worry about Kira’s social life. Her only solace is her position as a shrine maiden at her family’s shrine, which her grandfather maintains. There, Kira can be herself and doesn’t have to worry about the fact that she can see yokai, the spirits that fill the world around her and which go unseen by most.

But even that solace is stripped away when the shrine is attacked by demonic spirits, and her grandfather is murdered. Kira flees with her friend Shiro, a half-human half-kitsune boy from the shrine. They head to Tokyo’s spiritual underworld and are sent on a quest to gather seven shinigami– death gods– to help them fight the demon lord Shuten-doji. With just weeks before the fateful night of Shuten-doji’s return, Kira must convince the reluctant shinigami to join her side, learn to wield her own ancient powers, and still make it through high school.

“We make our way to the Meiji Shrine slowly, searching the entirety of Yoyogi Park. By the time the sun touches the horizon, we’ve been rejected by three more shinigami: an old woman carrying butterflies on her parasol, a fashionable girl who wears her souls strung on a necklace, their wings struggling for purchase against her silken blouse; and a round-bellied, red-faced man whose brown moths tremble as he shouts at us. For every thousand human souls I see, at least one shinigami hovers on the edge of our spaces, waiting for the opportune moment to strike. But none of the shinigami want anything to do with humans, outside killing them.”

Young adult novelists have a fine line to walk when writing their books. Go too far one way, and the story becomes a quagmire of tropes and cliches derided for a lack of originality. Go too far the other way, and uniqueness makes a story unappealing. As much as readers want original stories, there’s a benefit to familiarity. Thus, young adult writers need to make familiar ideas and character types fresh again. With their collaborative effort in Seven Deadly Shadows, Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani have created a story that offers the best of both- familiar tropes and original ideas that come together to make a story that is hard to put down.

‘The Chosen One’ is a trope familiar to all readers. Kira could be seen as such because of her nascent powers and her position as a shrine maiden in the exact shrine the demons attack first, but in many ways she’s the Chosen One because she chooses to take up the quest. After the attack on her family’s shrine, Kira takes it upon herself to travel to Tokyo to find help. She chooses to take up the challenge of gathering the shinigami and defending the world from destruction.

Shiro is another bright star in the story. The handsome young kitsune is more than just a pretty face. Thanks to his spiritual origins, Shiro helps ground Kira within the dual worlds she inhabits, protecting her when necessary, but also encouraging her to grow. There is no jealousy on his part, no drive to over protection that reads as borderline abuse. Shiro cares about Kira, but he trusts that she is capable of learning and defending herself. Shiro’s sense of humor is a refreshing change from too many other YA fantasy love interests who sneer and snarl their way through stories.

The setting of Seven Deadly Shadows is also fantastic. Set in modern Japan, it showcases the country’s folklore and spirituality without demeaning it. The spirits are part and parcel of the world, even if the majority of humans can’t see them. They have also adapted to the modern era, donning modern clothes and incorporating modern lifestyles into their own existence. It’s a fascinating blend, and it works perfectly thanks to the authors’ extensive research. With so many fantasy novels based upon western European lore and stories, it’s refreshing to have an excellent story like this one set in a different place entirely.

Though it doesn’t have a pair of moody bad boys swooning over the inexplicably skilled and sarcastic Strong Female Protagonist, Seven Deadly Shadows is an excellent example of YA fantasy at its best. Kira is a proactive and charismatic lead character who grows and changes, not because she discards her culture’s beliefs, but because she embraces them. YA fantasy could use more characters like Kira and Shiro, just like it could use more books like Seven Deadly Shadows.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Seven Deadly Shadows

  1. This is definitely a book I want to read. I find it easy to get lost in novels which bring the modern world and mythology closely together – plus, I find Japan very intriguing.

    This doesn’t seem like the usual sort of book you’d pick up, but I know you don’t review all the books you read. What inspired you to pick up Seven Deadly Shadows?

  2. I can’t remember where I saw it first, but the premise sounded interesting. I downloaded a free excerpt from Barnes and Noble, and it hooked me right away. YA fantasy isn’t my normal choice (the endless tropes drive me batty in short order), but there are certain ones that are well-written and don’t have the tropes and lazy archetypes that so much YA fantasy is afflicted with these days. It probably helps that it’s not set in a European-based setting.

  3. True. I wonder how many of the lazy archtypes and overdone tropes are apparant to us because there is so much European-based fantasy published already? I am not fluent enough in non-european fantasy to find those trends yet. But, if more diverse fantasy keeps getting published, I’m sure I will eventually. 😉

  4. I’ve been reading more non-Western inspired fantasy, and I haven’t found too many tropes so far. Maybe it’s just because there is cultural history I’m not aware of, but it’s a refreshing change. It’s actually getting to the point where I’m avoiding fantasy written by white men, just because it all feels so same-y.

  5. I would have recommended Jade City! I haven’t read the next one in that series, though…

    Here are some I’ve read, along with their inspirations. Some are eastern European, but it’s still a lot different from the English basis that most fantasy authors work with.

    -Their Bright Ascendancy trilogy by K. Arsenault Rivera (Mongolia/Japan)
    – Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao (Vietnamese)
    – Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (Iraqi)
    – The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad (Silk Road)
    – The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson (Islamic Spain)
    – Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner (Jewish lore)
    – The Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden (medieval Russian)
    – The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P Djeli Clark (alternate Egypt)
    -Gods of Jade and Shado by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Mexico)
    – The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang (Japan)
    – Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri (Mughal India)
    – Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor (Himba- African)
    – Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord (African)

  6. Pingback: March Summary, April Preview | Traveling in Books

  7. I’ve read the first book of Binti and I desperately need to finish the trilogy. These are novellas, so they’ll help me make a dent in my series challenge for this year (complete reading more series than I start reading). I also just finished reading The Winternight Trilogy and loved it. It’s such a unique fantasy trilogy — I have fallen in love with Russian mythology.

    So many options to choose from! I look forward to sorting through my library tools to see which ones are available in e-format for easy access. 😉 Thanks, Kim!

  8. Yay for the Winternight trilogy! Arden was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Series for those books yesterday! I hope she wins it. She’s a wonderful author and a down to earth human in general.

    You’re welcome for the recommendations! I am always happy to spread the word about them. 🤓

  9. She was?! That’s wonderful. I should stalk the Hugo nominees; I rarely stay on top of awards before the winners are announced. I love it when an author who is a down-to-earth, good person wins. It always makes me happy.

  10. This year’s nominees were announced yesterday. You can find the article at Tor.com . I mostly agree with the best novel nominees, except Gideon the Ninth, which had some really dreadful writing. Otherwise, though, I was pleased by the nominees.

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