by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm)
Thanks to partners NetGalley and Disney Publishing Worldwide for the digital ARC of Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger in exchange for an honest review. The book is out on May 3!
I’ve talked often about my love for the Rick Riordan Presents imprint on the Unabridged Podcast. Of course, I’m a fan of Riordan’s work, which I enjoyed and my boys have read and re-read, but I also so appreciate his goals with Rick Riordan Presents: on his website, he writes, “Our goal is to publish great middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage.”
Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger is the first YA entry in the Rick Riordan Presents catalog, and it’s a great way to kick off this collection for an expanded audience.
Mateo Matisse is a bit of an outsider from his San Madrigal culture. This close-knit community relocated to Brooklyn after San Madrigal, an isolated island in the Caribbean, sank into the sea. Now, the three strands of his homeland—pirates, Cuban Santeros, and Sephardic Jews—work together to maintain a sense of what San Madrigal used to be.
Mateo, who is living with his aunts (one living, one a spirit) while his doctor parents are traveling, connects to his culture most strongly through music. While he traveled with his parents for much of his childhood, missing out on the stories and in-jokes that have created strong bonds between his peers, his deep understanding of the music of his homeland allows him to take part in rituals and ceremonies that mean so much to San Madrigal.
On the night of the Grand Fete, Mateo is performing with his best friend Tams, a drummer, when a series of events changes the course of his life: he witnesses a brutal murder, connects with someone new, and finds out that his connection to the stories of his ancestors is deeper than he’d ever imagined.
I love this new path that Rick Riordan Presents is taking, with grittier stories that still appeal to those who love earlier, middle-grade entries in the imprint. Older is a master at world building without sacrificing the depth of these characters, and Mateo is a complex character whose desire to belong and to contribute to his community is sincere, despite some stumbles along the way.
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