Music. Magic. Ancient history. Murder. Daniel José Older‘s upcoming Ballad & Dagger weaves those elements into a YA urban fantasy unlike any other. Part of Rick Riordan Presents’ imprint, this first book in the Outlaw Saints duology spotlights a diaspora community in Brooklyn. And today Nerdist has the exclusive reveal for Ballad & Dagger‘s positively gorgeous cover, as well as the book’s first chapter—a chapter that’s pulling us right in.
But we won’t make you wait any longer to look at Ballad & Dagger‘s cover featuring art by Irvin Rodriguez, with design by Phil Buchanan.
Ballad & Dagger focuses on Mateo. His island homeland, San Madrigal, disappeared into the sea nearly 16 years ago. The survivors escaped to New York. The synopsis reads:
While the rest of his tight-knit Brooklyn diaspora community dreams of someday finding a way back home, Mateo—now a high school junior and piano prodigy living with his two aunts (one who’s alive, the other not so much)—is focused on one thing: getting the attention of locally-grown musical legend Gerval. Mateo finally gets his chance on the night of the Grand Fete, an annual party celebrating the blended culture of pirates, Cuban Santeros, and Sephardic Jews that created San Madrigal all those centuries ago.
But the evil that sank their island has finally caught up with them, and on the night of the celebration, Mateo’s life is forever changed when he witnesses a brutal murder by a person he thought he knew.
Suddenly Mateo is thrust into an ancient battle that spans years and oceans. Deadly secrets are unraveled and Mateo awakens a power within himself–a power that not only links him to the killer but could also hold the key to unlocking the dark mystery behind his lost homeland.
Yes to all of this.
Older tells Nerdist, “Ballad & Dagger is one of those books I feel like I’ve been writing my whole life—a true book of my heart. It’s full of so many dreams, fears, heartbreaks, and so much love. It’s also full of monsters, music, and mayhem. Can’t wait for the world to meet Mateo and Chela and the whole Little Madrigal crew. It’s a dream come true to work with Rick Riordan, who I admire so deeply, and especially to be able to have this book, which came from somewhere so deep in my core, as the first YA of RRP.”
Riordan adds, “I have admired Daniel José Older and wanted to work with him for years, so I’m thrilled to help publish Ballad & Dagger in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Daniel is an exceptionally talented writer with incredible range. It’s a high bar indeed, because I have loved all his books, but I think Ballad & Dagger may be the best thing he’s written yet.”
With that high praise, it’s time we get to that excerpt, don’t you think? This kicks off the book and I can’t believe I have to wait until May to see what happens next. Truly rude.
“iPUNETA!” TIA LUCIA SNAPS AS I HEAD TO MY ROOM TO GET READY for tonight. At first, I think it’s because I’m just in a towel and dripping all over her floor. But no, she’s reading her shells—divination—and her swear means they said something she didn’t want to know.
Tía Lucia looks up and rolls her eyes. My heart sinks. She’s not coming with me tonight—it’s all over her face. And here I am about to be dressed and ready. “You go ’head, Mateo,” she sighs.
“But, Tía . . .”
Tonight is the Grande Fete, the biggest night of the year for us Galeranos, and my aunt has never missed an opportunity to carry on, gossip, and dance the night away. Plus, she’s one of the three members of the Cabildo, our leadership council, and it’ll be a whole thing, her not showing up.
But something in those cowrie shells told her she has more important matters to attend to. She’s been divining for longer than I’ve been alive, and she doesn’t play around when it comes to messages from the spirits. So she shrugs. “Así es.” That’s just what it is.
Thing is: this isn’t just a regular fete. Tonight, Councilwoman Anisette Bisconte will name her successor on the Cabildo, and everyone knows it’ll be Tolo Baracasa. At just eighteen, he’d be the youngest member of our leadership trinity, but he seems like he was born for it. Tolo comes from a long line of pirates and inherited the nightclub we gather in, along with all the nefarious dealings that go with it.
Yeah, yeah, politics, whatever. The real reason tonight matters—to me, anyway—is that because it’s such an important fete, Maestro Grilo Juan Gerval is supposed to be there. It’s one of those rare nights he’s not off performing at concert halls across the world alongside other icons. And that means he’ll hear me play keys. He might even sing! Maybe he’ll realize I’m destined to bring our music to the world along with him, and he’ll pull me out of high school and away from the local festivities circuit to go hit the road, and I’ll just step on into the rest of my music-filled life . . . right?
What’s wrong? Aunt Miriam asks Tía Lucia, shattering my fantasy in a voice that implies an extinction-level event is at hand (she uses this tone at least forty-five times a day). Dead people are a trip, man. Aunt Miriam has been a spirit almost as long as the sixteen years I’ve been alive. She must’ve been a wisp of a woman in life— long and slender, with aggressive cheekbones and a slight smile. Now you can just barely make out those sharp features on her translucent shroud. The harsh glare of our overhead lamps flushes right through her, only glinting slightly off the edges of her spectral form.
She and Tía Lucia and I all live in this tiny apartment off Fulton Street in Little Madrigal, a hidden-away nook at the far end of Brooklyn. It’s just a couple hundred of us and a scattering of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Ecuadorians who mostly mind their own business and don’t mess much with all the weird politics of the people from the lost island.
You’re not going, Lucia? You’re already all made up and pretty!
And it’s true: a colorful silky scarf conceals Tía Lucia’s short bleach-blond curls. Bright purple lipstick shines from her mouth, and she’s done up her cheeks with rouge. That aquamarine eyeliner is the finishing touch, and I know she spent at least an hour standing in front of her vast makeup selection, going back and forth about what color to use. She’s a small, round woman, my aunt, but when she’s armored up in all that regalia and paint, she seems to tower over everyone around her.
“Nada.” Tía Lucia wraps up the shells and shoves a cigar in her mouth. “I’m still going, just a little later.” She only lights that thing when she’s super–stressed out, almost never. Otherwise she just chews on it till it’s mulch and replaces it every once in a while. Gross. She turns to me. “You go ahead without me, Mateo.”
Suddenly, her eyes narrow, and I realize, a second too late, that I’m still just in a towel, dripping all over her, which means an extinction-level event may now actually be at hand—“¿Y MI PISO, COÑO?” Tía Lucia yelps and stands up, and I scatter into my bedroom and close the door before any chancleta torpedoes can fly through it.
I’m pulling on my suit pants—I hate suit pants—and fussing with my phone to pull up my get-ready music when I hear a muffied argument on the other side of the door. Aunt Miriam trying to convince Tía Lucia to go, probably, but also . . . is one of them crying?
This is none of my business.
I hit Play and lean my phone against the mirror as the video of Gerval comes to life and his voice rises over whatever’s happening in the living room.
It’s from a live show a few months ago. They’re covering an old Galerano bolero, some murder song—all these old ditties are either about praising God, falling in love, or murdering someone (sometimes all three at once)—and the band has fallen into a fierce vamp while Gerval stands at the edge of the stage and just lets out a howl. He’s only a year or two older than me, but that howl over those jangling chords sounds like an ancient battle cry, and the crowd devours it, breathless, screaming.
On the small screen, Gerval flashes a wily grin.
And of course he’s grinning: Gerval went and broke the one rule of San Madrigal’s traditional musicians, the kameros: he blew up. We’re supposed to be heard and not seen, you see. Sea espíritu is what people say to kameros before we go onstage. Say-ah espee-ree-tu—be like a spirit, basically, let the light pass through you. It’s from an old instruction manual by one of the back-in-the-day masters, a great-great-great-grandpa of mine, in fact, Archibaldo Coraje Medina. He supposedly lost his mind and started playing creepy, nonsensical music late at night in the plaza, but before that, he was one of San Madrigal’s number one kama composers. Walking around with a name like Archibaldo is probably stressful, though.
Anyway, what a legacy, right?
But I get it: our work isn’t about us, it’s about the music. And personally, I’m much happier vanishing into the shadows. Besides my family and my best friend, Tams, I don’t really know how to talk to people. Unseen works for me.
But Gerval threw together an album of redone Galerano hits in the little music studio on Fulton, and one went viral and suddenly his face was everywhere we looked, grinning from our TV screens and phones, there onstage with some famous pop star that everyone cared about except us, touring the world.
And since he’s been gone, I’ve been the one playing most of the weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, which is cool and all but . . . kind of a dead end, no pun intended.
Tonight, though . . . tonight is my chance to jump on board with Gerval and help bring our music to a wider audience. I don’t want to be in the spotlight like him, just one of the guys in the band, there in the shadows, doing what I love.
I pull on my dress shirt, and it sticks to my still-damp skin, but I barely notice because here comes the part I love most: the howl swings up into a kind of siren-wail and the band jumps keys and unleashes a frenzy of tight staccato hits as Gerval works his way back down the scale. You can see him making eye contact with the drummer, bopping his head in time, and then the camera follows his gaze to a bulky, tall figure at the far end of the stage: Trucks. That’s Gerval’s right-hand man. He’s always wearing a helmet with a visor and all kinds of heavy military gear—just walks around cosplaying a riot cop, basically—but I guess when you’re an icon like Gerval, it makes sense to have someone like that constantly at your side.
Trucks and Gerval trade a nod, and then the band falls into a series of solos.
I finish buttoning my shirt, shaking my head at the way the whole moment comes together. I’m probably responsible for a good half of the eleven million views this video has on YouTube, but it still amazes me the way they move so smooth through all those changes without a word being spoken. If I had to guess, they probably didn’t even rehearse that—they just know.
Goals, man. Goals.
Anyway, the thin line of my goatee has just today reached the thin line of my mustache, which makes today basically my bar mitzvah, and it’s a fresh October night, the kind that’s perfect for entire lives to change forever, so I slide one arm and then the next into my suit jacket, roll my shoulders back to get the whole thing in order, and walk out into the living room.
And the most awkward silence I’ve ever known.
“What’s . . . uh . . . what’s up?” I ask into my two aunts’ inordinately blank stares.
You’re not going to tell him, Lucia? Aunt Miriam demands. “Tell me what?”
Tía Lucia waves off her deceased wife and me. “Nada. Go on. Don’t forget to salute the santos on your way out.” She opens her big fleshy arms for a hug. There’s no getting information out of her she doesn’t want to give. Whatever’s going on, she’ll tell me when she’s good and ready. I cross the room and lean over. It’s like a cloud of Florida Water travels everywhere that woman goes, I swear. The sharp, spicy scent sizzles my nostrils as she wraps around me and then holds me at arm’s length and says, “Escucha.”
Of all the many words in all the different languages my aunt speaks, that’s gotta be her number one favorite. Escucha. I could be, as I am now, staring directly at her, at full attention, completely tuned in, all ears, and she will still command me to listen. “I’m listening, Tía.”
She squints at me, because we go through this constantly. Then she softens. I notice the slightest tremble in her hands. Too much of that good strong Puerto Rican coffee, maybe. Or maybe it’s whatever those shells told her that has her shook, literally. “Be careful tonight, Mateo. A ver no te toquen at ti.”
Predictably cryptic. Make sure they don’t pick you, or touch you, or that it’s not your turn, depending on who you ask and when. Typical tía-type messiness. She loves getting woo-woo after reading her shells. Plus, since I supposedly almost died as a baby, both my tías and my parents get a little extra precious with me sometimes. You can see it in their eyes, the sudden memory of whatever strange illness I had. No matter how much I’ve worked out, or how much taller I am than all of them (a lot), I just become this tiny, fragile thing again, their baby.
Still, this one sounded more ominous than usual. “What do you mean, Tía?”
She nods at the bookshelf, where various soup tureens and vases house her spirits. “Dobale, m’ijo.” Doh-bah-ley—it means salute.
And yeah, the whole setup is beautiful, don’t get me wrong.
She has me wrap them in colorful, silky fabrics every year on the anniversary of her initiation as a Santera (which is coming up, actually), and each is adorned with sacred implements, ceremonial blades, and tacky porcelain animals.
The three original spirits of San Madrigal—the ones that, according to myth, emerged from the ether when our island rose from the sea—glare from paintings on the wall around the altar. There’s the island’s namesake, Madrigal herself, majestic and radiant over the sea in her shimmering, gold-lined magenta robes. Beside her is Okanla, the Destroyer, a badass warrior woman, her face covered by chains dangling from her elaborate silver headgear, and each hand holding a machete—one large, the other shorter. And then there’s Galanika, a stern and ridiculously buff older guy with a scar running down one side of his face and a frown to match it.
I’ll be honest: it’s been about a year since my parents and I agreed it was time for them to stop taking me along to disaster areas all over the world—in part so I could finish high school in Brooklyn—and I’ve been with my aunt here in Little Madrigal that whole time, but I’m still not totally used to all this spirit stuff she’s got going on. Mom and Dad are doctors, science people. They love data, facts, things that can be proven. We always dipped in and out of the neighborhood throughout my childhood. Usually just long enough for me to take some music lessons and, later, play some events. Then we’d be off again, to some new catastrophe. It sounds exciting, but mostly it meant me studying music in a hotel room while they risked their lives at some run-down clinic.
But Tía Lucia’s santos (or orishas, they’re also called)—I don’t really go in for all that stuff. And I know what you’re thinking: Mateo, you literally live with a dead woman. But the dead are one thing, and santos are a whole other. They’re like supercharged spirits, got all kinds of powers and complicated backstories and intertwined connections and stuff. It’s beyond me.
I just play my music, drink lots of water, and mind my business.
I do go through the motions, though, mostly so I don’t get in trouble. But that’s all it is: going through the motions.
My hand taps the wicker mat in front of the altar, and I kiss my fingers. It’s not a full salute, just enough to appease my tía. I blow an air smooch to my dead aunt, nod once more at my living one, and head for the door.
Sea espíritu, Aunt Miriam calls after me, and I know she’s winking because Galeranos can never let something have just one meaning; every possible pun must be mined, and get it? She’s a spirit. I just shake my head with a chuckle.
There’s a little wooden doohickey on the wall, and I tap that, too—yes, it’s called a mezuzah, not a doohickey—and kiss my hand. Then I do a little two-step in front of the small stone head with cowrie-shell eyes that’s glaring up at me from the floor—he’s Elegba, the santo who makes mischief at the crossroads. And finally, that’s it! I’m done! I’m practically out . . .
. . . until I almost trip over a tiny, furry lump sleeping on the doormat. After running the gauntlet of tías and spirits and sacred doohickies, there’s one final boss who must be defeated in order to escape the Medina house. Fwezeeeeeeeeblorppp! comes the only warning I get, and that would be Farts the Chihuahua. Well, his name is Dash, but no one calls him that. We call him his favorite thing to do. “Later, Farts,” I say as I step over him, close the door, then pause in the dim exterior hallway to catch my breath.
Through the thin door, I hear the flick flick and then fizz of Tía Lucia’s lighter.
That musty fall smell fills the crisp air—but it’s still just hoodie weather, not too cold—and everybody’s out and about.
In these moments, sometimes I think I have taken sea espíritu a little too much to heart. This place, it’s my home and not my home. I grew up coming and going, endlessly in and out, and those hotel rooms in Karachi, Djibouti, Caracas—the stale air, the ugly carpet patterns and mirror frames, the dullness and aggressively neutral decor—that was home, too. The man at home in every house is never home, one of our old ballads says, and man, I swear it was written about me. Always Home, Never Home: the Mateo Matisse Story.
Usually, learning all the intricacies of our songs, that was how I found home. Even if I wasn’t here physically, I could play the melodies and chords on my little keyboard, and each memory, fantasy, and idea would rise within me, a thread I could pull to find my way back.
And now I am back, and all I want to do is disappear. Because I know my culture, my music, my history, my people . . . but do they know me? Hardly. To almost everyone besides Tams and my tía, I’m just that weird music kid, the one who was gone a lot, the one who doesn’t talk. Stuck somewhere in between, neither here nor there. A ghost.
The train rumbles overhead, and its clanks and growls and squeaks join the chatter of ladies waiting to get their hair done outside the peluquería, which gives way to an old drunk guy humming to himself as cars whoosh past, and a bodega owner yelling about how fresh his mangos are.
It’s so alive, my little corner of Brooklyn, and while I wish Tía Lucia had come along tonight, being alone for the walk gives me a moment to do my favorite thing: listen. This isn’t what my aunt means when she says escucha. She’s talking about doing whatever she tells me, being careful or whatever. This is a different kind of listening—listening to the world. It’s what every kamero, every musician, really, has to learn. That’s what the old maestros teach.
Everyone’s getting ready; the whole neighborhood jitters and banters with the excitement of the night ahead. You can hear it in the squeals of kids in the park running around the much-graffitied statue of some colonizer, and you can smell it in the mix of freshly baked bread, perfume, and coffee. A little farther down, Tortuga Mariscos, the best seafood spot this side of Atlantic Ave., must be making a special enormous platter for tonight, because you can smell that spicy goodness from blocks away.
Little Elegbas peer out from every storefront, and I know there’s a mezuzah fastened on the inner slat of each doorframe.
Neighbors chatter and debate, pray and guffaw. I let their voices slide into the mash-up of sound and add it to the growing tapestry of song inside me.
We’re a messy, upside-down people, the San Madrigaleros. We each hold a hundred contradictions, but we wear them proudly. Our genesis sounds more like a bad joke than the actual founding of a nation: One stormy night centuries ago, a pirate, a rabbi, and a Santero escaped some battle together and watched in awe as the island of San Madrigal arose from the Caribbean Sea. This ridiculous trinity settled on it, and soon more escapees and outlaws showed up—they brought their hopes and fears, gods and demons. They made new ones. They fell in love and fought wars, and managed to stay out of the vengeful, gluttonous glare of empire for ages. Then, fifteen years ago, that island sunk beneath the waves during a hurricane, and we migrated here, where we’ve been in a spiritual crisis and state of constant yearning ever since.
No one really knew about San Madrigal when it existed. It was the stuff of legends, sailors’ delirium, and the dreams of pirates and revolutionaries—a hideaway. But not one that many people found or even believed in. So when it was gone, there was no one to notice except the people who lived there. My people.
But at least most of them have memories to cling to.
Me, I have nothing; don’t remember my birthplace. And because I was gone from Little Madrigal for so much of my childhood, mine feels like a double diaspora, my own personal haunting.
And now a whole new form of diaspora is opening up, as the first generation born here in the States comes of age. They have real documents, unlike their parents, who had to rely on Si Baracasa’s extensive false paperwork hookups. The kids born after the sinking of San Madrigal have never even seen the island we all called home, and they never will, because it’s gone forever.
Yet it’s all around us still.
San Madrigal sings and saunters and simmers through these Brooklyn streets. I can feel that place rattling and clacking all around me as I cross Fulton and head toward Tolo’s club. A tinny old-timey shanty streams out of Barbudo’s Barbershop, and the clack of the clave tack-tacks along beneath it in a series of off-kilter exclamation points while the accordions wail out the harmonies. A rumba sounds from a rooftop nearby, the breezy lows and highs of those congas, voices blending with acoustic guitars and a hoarse wail over the muddled traffic.
I take it all in as I stroll, and a melody forms, just like it always does. Some kind of rising, falling blend of these different worlds that smashed together so long ago, made us what we are, and led us to this weird exile world a thousand miles away.
The melody is just getting going when I stop in my tracks and everything seems to snap into silence around me.
Tolo’s club is just ahead, across the next street. It’s all decked out in Christmas lights and tacky pirate-themed decorations, and the words SAN MADRIGAL GRANDE FETE TONIGHT!! proclaim what’s happening across a bright marquee. Tonight’s a big deal for all of us, and for Tolo Baracasa more than anyone. The guy’s been waiting his whole life to take over his rightful role as pirate leader.
As lit up as the event hall is, though, it’s the figure standing in the alley behind it who stops me cold. He’s tall and bulky, and the orange streetlights glint off the face shield of his helmet.
Trucks. Which means Gerval is somewhere nearby.
Look, I’m not good at the whole talking-to-people thing—just give me a keyboard, you know? But I’m especially not good at talking to people I look up to. Usually, all the words I’ve planned out and practiced mysteriously evaporate the second I open my mouth, so I just end up making gurgley noises instead.
And then puking. Ha-ha, just kidding. Usually.
Point is, if I could get the awkward talking-to-Gerval part out of the way before the performance, I’d actually enjoy the night instead of stressing out, and I’d play better, and then I’d definitely get hired as his new pianist and tour the world!
So I take one step into the street and open my mouth to say hey (or, more realistically, just to gurgle), when something moves through the shadows toward Trucks. It’s so fast, I just catch a flicker against the darkness as the slight form launches into the air.
“Oh, ah, um . . .” I say, my eyes wide, and Trucks looks up at me, then spins suddenly, swings one burly arm out, and smashes the figure hurtling at him.
Who appears to be a girl about my age.
I can’t make out her face as she grunts and lands in the shadows.
It all happens so fast, and Trucks’s bulky frame blocks my view.
I’m not sure whether to run toward them or away; none of this makes sense.
She’s already leaped back up to her feet as he swings again, this time with one of those extendable batons that dudes like Trucks buy online to feel more like cops.
The girl slides nimbly out of the way and then—bap, bap!—I hear the sharp thunks of fists finding their mark, and Trucks stumbles back a step, arms flailing.
It all seems to slow as a rare, trembly music opens up inside me.
Songs just come when they feel like it—there’s no logic to it. This music, the music of their fight, is like nothing I’ve ever heard: shrill and melodic, with a splatter of snare hits beneath and a thunderous bellow throughout.
She’s on him in seconds, climbing his body like a tree. Then Trucks lets out a guttural kind of burp that’s cut off suddenly and becomes more of a whistle. He drops to his knees and keels forward, cracking his face shield on the pavement.
He’s dead. He’s definitely dead.
She stands over him, panting, a blade in one hand. As she looks down at what she’s done, her slim shoulders rise and fall. Her thick red hair is pulled back in two afropuffs, and her face is a few shades darker than mine. Above her round glasses, her brow is creased with fury.
I know her.
That’s Chela Hidalgo.
I grew up with Chela. She’s Rabbi Hidalgo’s daughter, and Tolo Baracasa’s cousin. We don’t know each other that well ’cause she’s super quiet and minds her business even more than I do.
Well, I thought she did, anyway.
She just murdered a man. Right in front of my eyes.
And then, because I’m the biggest schmo in the universe and because, let’s be honest, I’m in shock, I go, “Ahm . . . urg?”
I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. It’s just a useless sound I let escape from my useless mouth, which is hanging open uselessly.
Now we’re staring at each other, ten feet apart with a dead body between us. She’s still out of breath, but her expression is firm, not surprised. It says I will kill again if I have to. And mine probably says about what I’m thinking: OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD WHAT DID I JUST SEE WHAT THE OHMYGOD HELP.
She takes one step toward me, her eyes narrowing, and then a strange blue light erupts in the air like a slo-mo lightning flash, and suddenly standing between us is a shimmering form in a hooded robe looking like Death himself.
Both Chela and I take a step back, our mouths open, our faces lit with that blue glow. I can’t see under the hood.
I’m not sure who to be more afraid of.
And I don’t have time to decide, because with a flash and fizzle, the figure vanishes. I wouldn’t believe it really happened except Chela clearly saw it, too.
Very slowly, very deliberately, she looks at me. Then she turns and walks away, vanishing like a phantom into the shadows of the alley.
As soon as she’s gone, I lean over and puke my guts out.
Ballad & Dagger arrives on May 3, 2022. You can place your preorder now.