Daniel José Older is at his best in his YA new series, Outlaw Saints, part of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. In its first book, Ballad and Dagger, readers are treated to a diasporic reimagining of Atlantis and protectionist pirate lore.
If there’s one thing to understand about Daniel José Older’s writing, it’s that he’s going to represent the convergence of diaspora, usually in Brooklyn, NY. The story holds true to the community’s rhythms as it ebbs and flows around the institutions that make up the borough, from the elders who watch out for the neighborhood to the bodegas you can always trust to be open even on the darkest and coldest nights. True to the New Yorker experience these strongholds are equally as romanticized and appreciated as they are dunked on. Case in point: when the protagonist of Ballad and Dagger, Mateo, is on a race to evade a lethal force, he takes refuge on the subway. He observes, “I think me from a week ago would’ve put my head down and sobbed…And that probably would be the right thing to do after being chased and almost killed by huge demons, only saved by the grace and timing of the MTA, which, lord knows, is not something to ever place your hopes for survival on.”
The ease in which Mateo narrates the story, in a conversational tone that feels like he’s relating the story as it happens to a person he feels close to, is the real charm to the story. His introversion as San Madrigal’s resident world-traveling shy boy marks his comfort with relating to everything from public speaking to embracing his powers as a god’s avatar primarily through his love for music amplifies the feeling that the reader has received rare access to his inner thoughts. Older goes on to reinforce musical elements within the story structure itself as each part of the story is not only marked by a new poem or lyrics, but also begins with a theme or plot point that is revisited at the part’s end. In part one we start in his aunt’s apartment as she interacts with her gods, then end with Mateo in the apartment visiting her altar; in part two his best friend confronts him about his crush and in it’s ending, he acknowledges that he does indeed have a crush on the same person he was confronted about; and so on for the next three parts. Much more of this musical influence flows throughout the story as Mateo hears a melody in nearly any instance and each one helps the reader gain a deeper understanding of Mateo’s inner journey as it does for the character himself.
Ballad and Dagger is a novel as notable for its character development and writing logistics as it is for its greater themes of community reckoning and diasporic gathering. Readers looking for an Atlantis tale led by a self-governed BIPOC coalition that is also linked to present-day community representation in Brooklyn are in for a treat. I could easily see fans of Marvel’s Moon Knight and its storyline about gods and human avatars find this a great tale to visit.