‘Ballad & Dagger’ by Daniel José Older: A vibrant, musical story for everyone

This Ballad & Dagger book review is a spoiler-free look at the first Rick Riordan Presents YA novel.

I look forward to every single one of the books that come out of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, but Ballad & Dagger holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first young adult novel published under this umbrella. And boy did it set the bar high.

Until now, RRP has been home to dozens of middle grade novels based in mythology and folklore. It’s particularly special because every book comes from an author who has grown up listening to those stories. Not only are they all phenomenal writers, but there’s a sense of authenticity you just can’t miss whenever you crack the spine on a new one.

Ballad & Dagger is certainly no different, but what sets it apart is that it’s made for a young adult audience. That being said, I don’t think it skews too much older than the other books in theme or content, mostly because all the other RRP books (as well as Rick Riordan’s series) are so deft at handling the complexities of life and making them relatable no matter your age.

And this holds for me as a 30-something adult, too, as not only did Ballad & Dagger keep my attention, but it was also extremely emotionally impactful, especially by the time I turned to the final page. I love a story that draws you in with rich world-building, keeps your interest with spectacular characters, and implants a piece of itself in your heart by the time the journey comes to a close.

And this one did all three.

It’s not often that I spend as much time talking about the author as I do talking about their work, but this Ballad & Dagger book review calls for it. Daniel José Older has lived such an interesting life—as a musician, an EMS, a Santeria priest—and he’s put his experiences into this novel, calling it the “book of his heart.”

The proof is on each and every page. This world—part real, part mythology—comes alive, and Older’s authentic voice is at the center of everything. The first time I read him, it was in the Reclaim the Stars anthology, in which he wrote “Flecha” and we were introduced to Taya and Grengraf.

Yes, I am woefully behind on my DJO reading, and I truly hope that one day I’ll be able to say I’ve read his entire catalog. But even with one book and one short story under my belt, I can already see a pattern—Older writes interesting characters with interesting stories. In “Flecha,” he only had a few pages to make me care about the two main characters, who came from wildly different backgrounds, and yet he did so with ease.

Imagine how much he accomplished in a novel-length book like Ballad & Dagger.

It was easy to step into Mateo Matisse’s shoes. I know it’s an overused term to call a voice “fresh,” but it’s the perfect description of Older’s writing style. The dialog is generally upbeat, fun, and real. There’s a musicality to it that you often hear in the real world but doesn’t always come across on the page. It’s banter so natural, I could hear it with my own ears. When one character hits a drum beat, the other answers with a piano chord, and it thrums throughout your whole body.

Everything about this book is dynamic—it’s constantly moving, jumping, dancing, rolling, sashaying, and twirling forward. It’s certainly one of the most vivid stories I’ve read in a while, not only because of the colorful characters and splashy setting, but because of the way Older describes it all: Not only can I see what Mateo sees, but I can hear the unique way he interprets the world through music. And as someone who doesn’t have a musical bone in her body, that’s truly something I’ve never experienced before. And it’s a gift I won’t forget.

What I found perhaps most interesting about this book is the way the story keeps unraveling and our view of this world gets broader and broader. Each chapter adds another puzzle piece to the picture, and by the end, this universe was so much bigger than I ever thought it would be. The possibility of what the sequel could bring feels otherworldly, and I could not be happier with the idea of what’s to come.

But before we get there, we have to talk about Chela Hidalgo, who might just be my new favorite fictional hero. She’s such a badass, but instead of making her untouchable, Older infuses her character with both strength and vulnerability. She is a weapon and a salve. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, and yet she never seems to stumble.

Unlike Mateo. Don’t get me wrong—I love that Mateo is a hot mess most of the time. In fact, I think he’s better for it. He is simply riddled with anxiety, and Older has a way of describing the thoughts and feelings in Mateo’s head that spoke to me in a way I truly wasn’t expecting.

Not only that, but the story itself is about overcoming these fears and anxieties. Some of the lines in this book were the most profound takes on anxiety I’ve ever read, and every once in a while, I had to take a moment to process them. They made me reflect upon my own life, my own fears, my own ability to overcome my anxieties. It made me feel powerful, and I get to use this Ballad & Dagger book review to thank Older for that.

I know I keep hyping this book, but I promise I’m not overselling it. Even Rick Riordan said in his introduction to the novel, that it’s “the most daring, ambitious, and memorable story Older has written yet, and that is saying a lot.”

There are a lot of little moments that brought me joy, too. The normalization of queerness. The way the love story comes together with a tenderness I wasn’t expecting. How San Madrigal is both a paradise and a flawed creation. But especially that final chapter that feels so big and ethereal and yet so personal, like an impossible dream coming true right before your eyes.

I could talk about this book for hours (and probably will on Prophecy Radio), but for now, I hope this Ballad & Dagger book review has accomplished one goal—convinced you to read this beautiful, vibrant, musical story about the people of San Madrigal and how special they truly are.

‘Ballad & Dagger’ hit store shelves on May 3, 2022

Buy Ballad & Dagger by Daniel José Older from Disney Books, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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