Ballad and Dagger by Daniel Jose Older

Ballad and Dagger by Daniel Jose Older. Hyperion, 2022. 9781368070829

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

Format: Hardcover

Genre:  Fantasy

What did you like about the book? The island of San Madrigal, a paradise in the Caribbean, sank fifteen years ago, never to be seen again. The survivors escaped to Brooklyn and established their community of Little Madrigal, keeping their culture alive. Mateo Matisse knows that he should feel nostalgic for his homeland, but unlike the adults, he has no memory of the place. Instead of relishing in the magical stories and the gods of his island, Mateo just wants to focus on his music, and possibly join the band of his favorite idol, Gerval, who is also a first-generation Little Madrigal teen like him. Besides, he doesn’t believe the hype – not from the Santeros (people who practice and worship African-based folk gods), the Sefaradim (those of Caribbean and Jewish origins), or pirates (of course there are pirates) – or any of the beliefs that they worship. So, on the night of the Grand Fete, the biggest celebration of the year, when he witnesses one of his classmates murder Gerval’s right-hand man, Mateo’s world is thrown into disarray. The evil that sent San Madrigal into the ocean lurks in his home, and Mateo must awaken his own power to stop it. But he cannot do it alone; only by bringing together his diaspora community and uncovering the dark truth behind their island’s history will Mateo finally feel like he belongs. 

This is the first YA book in the “Rick Riordan Presents” series, which makes this very exciting for future releases. Daniel Jose Older brings together several aspects of the Caribbean diaspora community and tells a mythical story grounded in real Caribbean issues, such as unjust histories, folk magic and religion, governing communities of different ethnicities, beliefs, and cultures, and longing for the homeland. You can tell Older writes from experience. His language is more lyrical and descriptive than some of his other works, bringing a rich flavor to the novel that lets the reader grasp the culture of Little Madrigal through all senses. Ballad and Dagger is a beautiful fantasy novel about a boy trying to find his place in a diaspora community that is itself trying to keep itself alive. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? This is a nitpick, but the book gives you a map of San Madrigal, but the story never takes place there. It’s kind of misleading.  

To whom would you recommend this book? Teens who love mythology and want to read about diverse cultures. Witches Steeped in Gold also features Caribbean-inspired magic and mythology, and The Epic Crush of Genie Lo features Chinese mythology in an action-packed adventure for teens as well. 

Who should buy this book? High schools and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Teen fiction/teen fantasy

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Laila Carter, Boston Arts Academy, Dorchester, MA

Date of review: August 8th, 2022

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