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Ballad and Dagger, by Daniel José Older

Review copy provided by the publisher.

I have really enjoyed everything I’ve read in the Rick Riordan Presents line, but I admit that I had started to form a certain expectation of them, and with it a worry. They have not only all been middle-grade fantasy, they’ve had a very similar shape of subgenre/plot: a tween or young teen from modern America discovering the mythology of their heritage in a rather firsthand way. Some of them have been amazing books, but I’m very glad to see that this line is open to a somewhat broader age range and plot type.

Which is to say: Ballad and Dagger is young adult, not middle-grade. Its hero, Mateo Matisse, is a high school student whose vocabulary, life concerns before this book, and plot arc in this book are definitely a notch or two more mature than, say, my girl Aru Shah in the wonderful books that bear her name. And the world Older has created draws on his heritage but is very much his own creation.

Mateo is a high school junior living in Little Madrigal in New York City–the diaspora community formed after the secret magical island of San Madrigal sank beneath the waves. The people who had originally formed the community of San Madrigal were a mix of Santeros, Sephardim, and pirates; over the centuries the fusion of cultures has made its own unique combination–but not one the outside world is allowed to know much about. The people of San Madrigal have been fiercely proud of the way they stood aloof from colonialism, and they’d like to keep it that way. And if observant teens like Mateo and his friends have moments of wondering how a country that was never touched by the icy hand of colonialism managed to replicate some of its worse features, well…history is full of mysteries, right?

Some of those mysteries are about to get solved. Because the powers of Little Madrigal want to raise San Madrigal from the waves. If only they can find the children of San Madrigal’s three central spirits: a creator, a destroy, and a healer. Mateo’s focus is his music, but he also loves his friends, his aunts, and his community–and would love to be able to help, if only he had any power to do so. If only…well, this is a YA fantasy, right? Something’s bound to turn up. But Mateo’s music forms a strong central thread to a book with compelling characters and fun worldbuilding. While there’s almost certainly more to be told of Little Madrigal, this book surprised me with how quickly things pulled into a satisfying ending for this piece of the story.

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