Book Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older

Book Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older

Dactyl Hill Squad

By Daniel José Older

Historical Fantasy, MG

It’s 1863 and dinosaurs roam the streets of New York as the Civil War rages between raptor-mounted armies down South. Magdalys Roca and her friends from the Colored Orphan Asylum are on a field trip when the Draft Riots break out, and a number of their fellow orphans are kidnapped by an evil magistrate, Richard Riker.

Magdalys and her friends flee to Brooklyn and settle in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood, where black and brown New Yorkers have set up an independent community—a safe haven from the threats of Manhattan. Together with the Vigilance Committee, they train to fly on dactylback, discover new friends and amazing dinosaurs, and plot to take down Riker.

Can Magdalys and the squad rescue the rest of their friends before it’s too late?

oOo

Full disclosure: I will ready anything Older writes. His writing is so full of life and verisimilitude that even dinosaurs in 1863 being used as carriage horses is completely convincing. His characters are unapologetic in speech and behavior and appearance. Magdalys doesn’t have to go on a long journey of self-discovery, she’s ready to take the world by storm and fuck anyone who gets in the way. Magdalys is our main girl and right off the bat we have her asserting herself as the head matron tries to force the anglicized name “Margaret” on her.

There’s so much packed into these pages, we have that interaction with the head matron in the first few pages and then there’s the line about how it had just become legal for colored folks to ride dinos. So we’ve already set up that just because there are dinosaurs, not much else is different from how black/brown people were actually treated in the 1860s. I did look up whether or not it was illegal for colored people to ride horses in the 1860s and from what I can tell—I didn’t dive super deep into it—it wasn’t, but I did learn that early in horse racing a lot of jockeys were former slaves. In the 1880s as Jim Crow laws picked up steam they started losing their jobs and horse racing became the white-associated sport we know in the modern era.

But I digress.

You’ll do that a lot while you’re reading Dactyl Hill Squad, there’s so much stuff in here that you’ll want to look up and see Did That REALLY Happen? And Older has helpfully supplied an index of places and people and events he used as a jumping point for a lot of what happens in this book.

Back to the story though. Magdalys has a special connection with dinosaurs that, because she’s not allowed around them that often, she’s only just discovering when the whole world goes up in flames. Magdalys and her fledgling ability to communicate with dinosaurs gets her and her friends out of the heart of the riots overtaking Manhattan. This is probably my favorite part of the book. The kids are escaping on a brachiosaurs—brachy—with Magdalys in the driver seat and another orphan, Amaya, firing flintlock pistols at magistrate Riker and his Kidnapping Club. Meanwhile, literally, riding shotgun is a black Shakespearean actress, Cymbeline, who has a double barrel shotgun and is also blasting away at the Kidnapping Club and their ankylosaurses and raptors. It’s girl power to the Nth degree and I can’t get enough.

I will give fair warning that Older doesn’t pull any punches or gloss over what exactly it meant to be black in 1863 NYC, there is a lynching. There’s nothing graphic in the description, but it’s there. Personally, I think a white author would have had the character shot or simply disappeared or died in the fire, but the offscreen death softens the edges of things. These are black and brown characters existing in a time period when they weren’t considered human by a large portion of the US population. The lynching is a gut punch, but it’s truth.

I like the variety of dinos that Older brings to the table, too. It’s not just triceratops and t-rexes, we’ve got ankylosaurses, knuckleskulls, brachys, and some delightful tiny things called microtriceratops that people use as pets.

I said on twitter I was ready to pre-order the entire series and I meant it. Even if middle grade isn’t the usual thing you read, you can make an exception for Dactyl Hill Squad. I blew through this in an afternoon and I’ve been thinking about it for two days. I’m sure I’ll do another read through in the next couple of weeks because Older writes books that require more than one reading to really put things together. I’m sure there are things in this book that three books from now will become lynchpin information. It’s how he writes and it’s so amazing.

There is a character towards the end of this book that appears in his YA Shadowshaper trilogy, and I’d love to gush about him, but I haven’t decided if it counts as a spoiler. I know I about threw the book when he appeared, so I think I’d like to keep it as a delightful surprise for everyone else.

As always, you can pick up Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author here: http://danieljoseolder.net/

 

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Travel Time: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Travel Time: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

So, I’ve been saying since I started traveling that I’d get photos up for you all to see and I’ve not been great at keeping up with that. But I’m going to get that sorted this year. So going allllllll the way back to 2016, we’re going to start with Phnom Penh, Cambodia!

 

When I arrived in Phnom Penh, I was flabbergasted by how big this city is. My current hometown has a population of 50,000-ish people. Phnom Penh has 1.5 million. As we were coming in for a landing, seeing this city stretch for miles was breathtaking and really set in what kind of adventure I was in for. This was the first time I’d undertaken an adventure of this caliber. Sometimes I feel like I’ve always been traveling. Then I look back at these pictures and I remember I really only started traveling three years ago this month. I’ve had so much fun and I’ve grown so much, but this picture reminds me of that first stomach fluttering descent into the unknown.

 

Cambodia has some pretty currency, I took some pictures of it because I’d never seen money so colorful. And maybe you haven’t either, so here you go!

 

 

The view from my window was spectacular. The hotel we stayed in was right by the main artery of Phnom Penh so I got a front row seat to watching the chaotic traffic. Even sitting in a room watching the tuktuks and motorbikes and cars and pedestrians weave around each other was thrilling. US folks, you may think no one in your state can drive, but I promise you we are down right regimented drivers when it comes to the free-for-all that is Khmer roads. The chaos is amazing. There are no crosswalks, you just look both ways and step off the curb cars or not. It is…well, it’s something.

 

Monday morning we got a tour of the city! I woke up sick as a dog and completely jetlagged Sunday and spent the whole day guzzling water and sleeping hoping I’d recover enough to be up and ready on Monday. It…mostly worked. I bullied myself through that day because I didn’t want to miss a minute! The end result is that I don’t have a lot of clear memories of this day. I remember we rode in tuktuks and I know we went to a temple and through the area where the Night Market is set up before finishing at the Royal Palace. But I don’t remember most of what was said. I do remember walking around the Palace grounds in awe of the architecture and also hoping I didn’t puke on the immaculate lawn.

 

The temple we went to was Wat Phnom and it was beautiful. I was still feeling a little spry when we got there so I roamed the temple grounds looking at the lovely architecture and the murals. It was humid but cool under the trees and it kept me from wilting.

So that was the first couple of days in Phnom Penh. If you’ve been waiting for the pictures, they’re finally here! Check back on Mondays for more stories and pictures not only from Cambodia, but all the other places I’ve been over the years and places I’m heading to next.

Review: A Touch of Gold by Annie Sullivan

Review: A Touch of Gold by Annie Sullivan

Touch of Gold

By Annie Sullivan

YA, Fantasy

After King Midas’s gift—or curse—almost killed his daughter, he relinquished The Touch forever. Ten years later, Princess Kora still bears the consequences of her father’s wish; her skin shines golden, rumors follow her everywhere she goes, and she harbors secret powers that are getting harder to hide.

Kora spends her days concealed behind gloves and veils. It isn’t until a charming duke arrives that Kora believes she could indeed be loved. But their courtship is disrupted when a thief steals treasures her father needs to survive. Thanks to Kora’s unique ability to sense gold, only she can find the missing items. As she sails off on her quest, Kora learns that not everything is what it seems—not her companions, or the thieves, or Kora herself.

oOo

A continuation of the King Midas tale from the daughter’s POV? Yes please! As a huge fan of Disney’s Tangled and Frozen, Kora reminded me a lot of Elsa and Rapunzel. She’s terrified of the powers she has and thinks they make her unlovable, but she wishes to travel far and wide seeing the whole world. Being cloistered in the castle most of her life doesn’t make her as naïve as Rapunzel, though. She’s aware of the rumors that follow her and assumes if anyone looks twice at her it’s because they’re either afraid of the rumors or they’re looking for a good way to exploit them if they’re true.

Kora’s kingdom is in dire straights when we meet Kora and her cousin—but sister at heart—Hettie. Wars have plagued the kingdom and since Midas’ brush with gold he’s been an absent ruler. Kora is now playing the marriage game to bring the kingdom back from poverty and give it some stability. She’s not super thrilled about any of this, and who could blame her. No one’s paid her much mind until now, because now she’s a useful bargaining chip.

I like Hettie, she’s got a short fuse and definitely reminded me of Anna with her blunt personality and initial haughtiness when we meet the crew of the Swanflight. But she learns to wield a cutlass pretty quick and falls right in with the boys. I think Hettie has an interesting story inside her, I’d love to know what she does after the book ends. She doesn’t seem like she’d be one to stuff herself back into gowns and corsets after their adventure. Hettie does tiptoe the line of being more interesting than Kora, like Han and Luke. The story is told from Kora’s POV and she does a lot of growing during the adventure, but Hettie gets into swordfights and cuts pirates down like she was born for it. Is that rage? Is it inborn talent? Did she watch the palace guards practice? I have a lot of questions about what’s going on inside of Hettie.

Our villain is Captain Skulls, so named because he likes to keep the heads of his enemies as souvenirs. We all have weird hobbies, don’t judge. Captain Skulls fits nicely into the mold of Disney villain. He is bad through and through, there are no glimpses of humanity or deeper character story. He’s there to chew bubblegum and steal heads. And he’s all out of bubblegum. There are other antagonists in the story, and they start off with the promise of a complex character arc, but once the charade falls apart they also become bad through and through. I’m pretty sure all Disney villains are sociopaths, has anyone looked into that?

When Kora sets off on her journey there’s a sense of urgency, the stolen treasures are tied directly to her father’s life, so the longer they’re away, the weaker he becomes and he’s already a shadow of himself. But there’s no real ticking clock, there’s no definitive “Get the gold back in a week or he’ll be dead.” It’s just every now and then Kora checks in and we get an update of him slipping away more and more. Still the time spent on the ship doesn’t hold a lot of urgency. She frets over getting the gold back, but she also spends equal time fretting over boys and Hettie being seasick.

I would say it’s the last three or four chapters will have readers turning pages fast as they can. There are a lot of twists and turns and false leads in this book and the end is a breathless maze. The fight with Captain Skulls is dramatic, but it’s everything that happens afterwards that really seals Touch of Gold as an enjoyable afternoon read. This being a Hyperion print, there’s no gratuitous violence, lots of the fighting is dramatic sword fights and off screen deaths, so if you have a younger reader who’d like to read a swashbuckling tale of King Midas, this is a good one.

You can pick up A Touch of Gold by Annie Sullivan at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author here: https://anniesullivanauthor.com/