New Book Nook: Ballad and Dagger is One For the Diaspora Kids

This review was originally posted on The Geeky Waffle. It has been reposted here with permission.

It’s a great feeling to go into a book with certain expectations and to have those expectations met, or even exceeded. It’s quite another to go into a book and not only have your expectations exceeded, but also have a completely different set of expectations met, exceeded, then blown out of the water.

Ballad and Dagger is the story of Mateo, a sixteen-year-old with a love of music who hails from the now-lost island of San Madrigal. Much of the community of the lost island has migrated to a little corner of Brooklyn known as Little Madrigal, and it’s there they live in relative harmony.

So naturally, things do not stay harmonious for long. Everything changes the night one of the community leaders declares her intention to raise San Madrigal from the depths, Mateo discovers he has powers he didn’t know he had, and not everyone wandering around their community is as they appear – or indeed, entirely human. 

From there, things kickstart into a story that is part adventure and part mystery as the past and present converge onto the shoulders of Mateo and the classmate he absolutely 100% doesn’t have a crush on, Chela. The two of them, along with Mateo’s best friend Tams are an absolutely fantastic addition to the roster of young adult characters in the literary canon.

When I say that Ballad and Dagger is one for the diaspora kids, I don’t just mean in the literal sense of “it is a story of diaspora”, though it certainly is that. What I mean is that too often the stories told about us are just about that. So rarely is there a tale for young people that infuses a sense of magic, and fantasy and adventure and comedy and romance all in one breathtaking package. 

Mateo’s struggle to fit in with the community of Little Madrigal is one that I think any person who grew up just a little removed from their community will understand and empathize with. There is a sense of belonging that should exist, but never quite clicks into place no matter what you do. The solution is not an easy one – nor is it actually fully reached, there is still one more book to go, after all – but it’s precisely the complexity through which it’s presented that makes it resonate so hard for a diaspora kid like me.

Even though the rest of the book feels more in line with the kind of fantastic mythological adventure I’ve come to expect from the Rick Riordan umbrella (yes, I read the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus books long after I aged out of the target demographic), there is something about Ballad and Dagger that makes the fantastical feel firmly rooted in truth. San Madrigal sounds like it could have existed. The gods of the island could have existed too. Every part of the magic feels just as real as the world Mateo lives in. Real, and just out of reach enough that it leaves you nostalgic for something you never had.

I wish I could scream in greater detail about the romance between Mateo and Chela, and how it hits on the kind of tropes I wish I had more of as a young adult, but I won’t dare ruin the joy of discovery for you. Suffice it to say Older wasn’t joking when he said this might be his most romantic book yet.

The facets to this story are many, and in the hands of another writer might have become overwhelming. Instead, Older seamlessly blends the magic, the romance, and the very grounded reality of what it means to not really fit in with the people who are meant to be home all into one.

Ballad and Dagger is available May 3, 2022. Special thank you to Disney Books for the advance copy for review purposes.

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