Book review: Ballad & Dagger

YA fiction

By Daniel Jose Older

All 16-year-old Mateo Matisse wants is to be able to make his music, be heard and not seen, and maybe someday play backup for his musical idol, Gerval. But events in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Little Madrigal don’t make that dream easy. Little Madrigal houses most of the people remaining from the free Caribbean island nation of San Madrigal after it sank into the sea fifteen years ago. Those citizens — pirates, Santeros, and Sefaradim — rule their own little corner of the world, celebrate their traditions, and squabble over politics.

For years, Mateo has been like a tourist in his own community, traveling with his doctor parents and only occasionally touching in with Little Madrigal. But after living for a stretch with his aunt Lucia in Brooklyn, Latino teen boy with glowing hand beside teen girl with dagger, against outline of person with ceremonial necklace.he finds he’s more fundamentally connected to Little Madrigal than he expected — and so is his crush, Chela Hidalgo, the rabbi’s daughter. During a celebration, Mateo learns that he is an initiated child of the god Galanika, destined to channel the spirit’s healing power. Moreover, along with the initiates of the other two island spirits, he’s supposed to help bring back the lost island.

Mateo resists the role that’s been thrust upon him. But unexpected violence and political infighting drag him into the fray. Working together with Chela and his best friend Tams, Mateo uncovers San Madrigal’s buried history, in the process changing his views about their community and his own place in it.

In Ballad and Dagger, Older explores themes of diaspora and colonialism, while still keeping things grounded in a teen reality of evolving identities, crushes, and insecurities. This is world-building at its best, making for a fun, myth-based urban fantasy with a kick. Can’t wait for the sequel!

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