Title: Ballad and Dagger
Series: Outlaw Saints #1
Author: Daniel Jose Older
Genre: YA, Fantasy
Published: May 3rd, 2022 (Rick Riordan Presents)
Synopsis: Almost sixteen years ago, Mateo Matisse’s island homeland disappeared into the sea. Weary and hopeless, the survivors of San Madrigal’s sinking escaped to New York.
While the rest of his tight-knit Brooklyn diaspora community dreams of someday finding a way back home, Mateo – now a high school junior and piano prodigy living with his two aunts (one who’s alive, the other not so much) – is focused on one thing: getting the attention of locally-grown musical legend Gerval. Mateo finally gets his chance on the night of the Grand Fete, an annual party celebrating the blended culture of pirates, Cuban Santeros, and Sephardic Jews that created San Madrigal all those centuries ago.
But the evil that sank their island has finally caught up with them, and on the night of the celebration, Mateo’s life is forever changed when he witnesses a brutal murder by a person he thought he knew.
Suddenly Mateo is thrust into an ancient battle that spans years and oceans. Deadly secrets are unraveled and Mateo awakens a power within himself – a power that not only links him to the killer but could also hold the key to unlocking the dark mystery behind his lost homeland.
Thank you to the publisher, Disney Publishing Worldwide, and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
When the island nation of San Madrigal sank into the ocean fifteen years ago, the survivors made their way to New York, settling in the Brooklyn neighborhood that has come to be known as Little Madrigal. The citizens of this community continue their way of life, whether it be their culture and traditions or the politics, but all of them are hopeful of finding a way back home, of raising the island again. High school student Mateo Matisse who lives with his Aunt Lucia is only interested in his music and perhaps one day being good enough to play backup for his idol Gerval, a local legend. But on the night of a major celebration, Mateo learns that he is an initiated child of Galanika, a god with healing powers, and is one of three such initiates of the island spirits that possess the ability to raise the lost island. He is not happy with the unexpected role that has been thrust on him, but is unwillingly dragged into the fray as political infighting leads to violence on the streets. As the evil that sank their island returns once more, Mateo must learn to use his new powers and uncover San Madrigal’s long buried secret history.
The world building was my favorite part of this book. Unlike the other series in the Rick Riordan Presents collection I’ve read so far, Ballad and Dagger wasn’t based on any one mythology, but was rather an amalgamation of many cultures, with a wholly original setting that was wonderfully portrayed. The ins and outs of the culture, history and politics were so well detailed, along with the themes of diaspora and colonialism woven in, and it made for a fascinating backdrop to this story. Both San Madrigal and Little Madrigal were so immersive that at times I forgot it was fictional – the community was so well described that it felt real.
The characters were all right, Mateo makes for a good narrator, though I felt like his arc wasn’t the best in terms of character development. I didn’t really connect to any of the characters, but they did all have important roles to play and they kept the plot moving.
Pacing was the one major area where this book suffered, in my opinion. Despite the interesting premise, I found it extremely hard to get through the first half of the book with how slow it was. If it hadn’t picked up when it did, I might have well DNF’d this book. Admittedly this is all set up time for this intricate world so I’m glad I stuck with it, but a reader needs to have a lot of patience to make it to where the real story begins.
Overall, given how much this book sped up by the last quarter of the story, I think it pulled together for a decent ending that wrapped up everything rather well, and it has made me curious enough that I’ll probably pick up the sequel next year. I’m looking forward to checking out other books by the author as well and I would recommend this book for fantasy fans!
Ballad and Dagger releases on May 3rd, 2022.
Do you plan to read this book? Let me know in the comments below!
All quotes in this review were taken from an advance reader’s edition and may differ from the final version of the book.
Other reviews in this series: