Ballad and Dagger by: Daniel Jose Older

Ballad and Dagger gets four (4) stars for me, right off the bat. I was excited when I read the premise for this book and it did not disappoint.

Our main character is Mateo. He’s part of a small diaspora of people from a lost Island. The people are an eclectic mix of pirates, spiritualists, there’s Spanish, Jewish, Yoruba religion and gods. It was such a brilliant mix. It was vibrant, beautiful and felt real. Lived in. Like their lost island, San Madrigal, and the people, were real.

And the book was full of Black, Afro-Latin people and it was so nice to see. Cops weren’t a problem. It was a book that I didn’t have to worry about seeing cops do to Black bodies what they do in real life.

Mateo’s parents are scientists so they always too him with them and that left him feeling like he didn’t fit in in Little Madrigal, the area of Brooklyn that the survivors of the island’s collapse settled in.

Mateo is a musician and music plays a big part in not only the story but the writing. You don’t have to be very musically inclined to get it but it would help I guess if you really wanted to understand what Mateo was describing and hearing.

There’s so much Spanish! That year of Duolingo sort of help. Like 20% but still. It was great. So lived in. At no point in the first 80% did the pacing bother me. Mateo’s got a best friend named Tams and she’s attractive but they’re still best friends despite people always wanting to be with her. It was nice to see that. In so many YA books, the attractive best friend ends up being a point of contention in the character’s relationship.

There’s a lot of emphasis on family but also belonging. Mateo feels like he doesn’t fit it, like he’s an outsider in his own culture and he’s disconnected from it. Watching that change was great. It felt honest.

The romance was okay. It actually felt like normal teenage stuff, no melodrama but maybe it moved a little awkwardly at some points.

Another big theme in this story is the past, secrets and coming to grips with them when they come into the light. What makes people who they are. It was dark and sad and when the characters hurt, I hurt. They were so powerfully and realistically written.

I will say that the only real negative I have for this book is the last 10%-15%. That’s when the pacing sort of goes off the rails. Up until then, it had been really easy to read, to follow the events. At that point though, everything sped up and it got a little difficult to track what was happening with whom.

There was also some awkwardness with Chela and Mateo. Just the pacing of events that happens to them in that last 15% as well. Things felt too fast, and maybe a little too “perfect” in terms of how the characters handled things.

All in all though, absolutely a solid four (4) stars. I will recommend this not only to my younger sibling and their friends but anyone who wants to read a book about Afro-Latin people, living life, and coming to grips with the traumas of the past.

I received this eARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, thanks to them and the publisher.


Author. Reader. Reviewer. Interested in Sci-fi, Fantasy, and everything in between. Ya, and Adult. Looking for representaion where it matters! BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, everything! We all deserve stories!

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