‘Last Canto of the Dead’ by Daniel José Older: The Outlaw Saints make their last stand

Our Last Canto of the Dead book review tackles the latest Rick Riordan Presents book, which brings Daniel José Older’s Outaw Saints series to a close.

It seems like we just met Mateo and Chela, and in a sense, we have. The first book in the Outlaw Saints series, Ballad & Dagger, arrived about a year ago, and already, we’re saying goodbye to these characters. We may not have known these two for long, but they’ve already made a huge impact on Rick Riordan Presents readers.

This series will always be special because it was the first young adult series to find its way to this imprint. Having only published middle-grade books since its launch in 2018, that certainly let the Outlaw Saints stand apart from everyone else. But it wasn’t just that—Ballad & Dagger introduced us to San Madrigal, an island that had provided refuge to pirates, Sephardic Jews escaping the Inquisition, and Cuban Santeros. This blend of culture makes this book unique, as does the two young heroes whose world got flipped upside down.

When we last left Mateo and Chela, they had recently discovered they housed spirits inside them. For Mateo, that was Galanika, a healer spirit, and for Chela, that was both Madrigal, a creator spirit, and Okanla, a destroyer spirit. Journeying to San Madrigal, they came upon their homeland and watched as it rose from the water.

As Daniel José Older told us in our interview for Ballad & Dagger, Last Canto of the Dead takes place one second after the previous book ends, and I loved that we didn’t miss a minute away from these two. There’s no catching up on everything that’s happened since the last book—we’re thrown right back into the story and into the lives of these two characters.

What happens is, to put it simply, utter chaos. The island rising from the ocean may be a dream come true for everyone who remembers what it was like living on San Madrigal, but it also sank for a reason. Monsters have infested the island, and there are some other hidden secrets as well. This is especially difficult for Chela, who is as much the spirit Madrigal as she is literally the island itself. A bit confusing for any teenager, but Chela can hold her own.

last canto of the dead book review

This book makes quick work of separating Mateo and Chela near the beginning of the story, and I think it’s all the better for it. The narrative benefits from Chela being on the island, exploring her powers and making a new friend (my favorite character in the book, by the way). I loved seeing Chela struggle and overcome, loved living in her head, which is full of so much strength and determination. Going solo makes her ultimate success even more resounding.

Mateo, on the other hand, is sent back to Little Madrigal to dig into the history of the island. It’s fun seeing him step into a leadership role, become closer with Tolo, and work through the grief and sacrifice from Ballad & Dagger. We reconnect with family and friends—and foes!—from the last book, and even though little time has passed since we last saw them, everything has changed. His time back home isn’t always easy, but it’s certainly worth it.

I wrote about the musicality of Older’s prose in my previous article, but I want to make sure I mention it in this Last Canto of the Dead book review as well. There is truly something special about how vivid these books are, how they are like music for your eyes. There’s a rhythm beneath the story that bubbles up to the surface in the dialog and action sequences. Both of these books are so easy to read because they push you forward with an urgency that makes you excited to turn each and every page.

History and culture collide in Last Canto of the Dead, but this is as much a story about us versus them as it is about us versus ourselves. There is a political undertone that’s difficult to ignore; a conversation between Mateo and various characters about the correct way to fight for your rights, to forgive those who wronged you, to pave a path for the generation to come.

There are several particularly poignant scenes between Mateo and his father, as they view the world and the solutions to its problems very differently. Mateo’s father is a pacifist, and someone who believes in forgiveness first. After everything that happened in the last book, it’s easy to understand why Mateo simply cannot follow that doctrine. It adds tension to the novel as the action and carnage ramp up both on the island and back in the city, and those fleeting moments when Chela and Mateo are able to reconnect are more necessary because of it.

Truly, there is no other way to end this Last Canto of the Dead book review than to tell you that the story comes to a resounding crescendo that shakes the very earth of the island as the past and the present collide. I know this is the last we’ll see of the Outlaw Saints series, but with a world so full of life, I hope that one day Daniel José Older will treat us to a new song as sweet and symphonious as this one.

‘Last Canto of the Dead’ published on May 16, 2023

Buy Last Canto of the Dead by Daniel José Older from Disney Books, Bookshop.org, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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