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