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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Book Review: Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper Cypher #2)

Book Review: Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper Cypher #2)

Shadowhouse Fall (The Shadowshaper Cyper, Book #2)

by Daniel José Older

YA, urban fantasy

Sierra and her friends love their new lives and shadowshapers, making art and creating change with the spirits of Brooklyn. Then Sierra receives a strange card depicting a beast call the Hound of Light—an image from the enigmatic, influential Deck of Worlds. The shadowshapers know their next battle has arrived.

Thrust into an ancient struggle with enemies old and new, Sierra and Shadowhouse are determined to win. Revolution is brewing in the real world as well, as the shadowshapers lead the fight against systems that oppress their community. To protect her family and friends in every sphere, Sierra must take down the Hound and master the Deck of Worlds…or risk losing them all.

*~*~*

This is the second book of Older’s YA series, the first is Shadowshaper, so if you haven’t read that one, skip over to a bookstore and pick it up or you’re going to be confused in the next few paragraphs.

Daniel José Older is one of my favorite authors. I thoroughly enjoyed his Bone Street Rumba trilogy, but I love his YA. We’re still following Sierra in this book and she’s tiptoeing into her role and Lucera. The crew is still with her and they’re growing with her as they all figure out their new abilities. The book starts right off though with hinky hijinks unsettling the tentative equilibrium Sierra picked up at the end of Shadowshaper.

On top of one of her classmates telling her the Sorrows haven’t given up on annihilating her and Shadowhouse, personal tragedy also strikes, shady cops seem to pop up at the worst times, and there’s also boy trouble. It’s a lot for one young girl with the ancient powers of ancestors to handle, but she’s got a cadre of ride or die friends helping her out.

The writing throughout the book feels like the breathless, breakneck, tumble Sierra is in as she tries to find answers to what the Deck of Worlds is and what it means for her and those she loves. Sierra is just trying to keep her head above water with everything happening in the spirit world and in the physical world. It’s not until you get to the final twenty or so pages that you feel like you can breathe. Finally, things start falling in to place, characters reveal their true motives and Sierra can go on the offensive.

All of Older’s books are rapid page turners and Shadowhouse Fall is no exception. Answers are always juuuuust out of reach and you’ll find the whole night gone as you tell yourself, “One more chapter, then I’ll go to bed.” But by then you should be at the end and you’ll have all the answers and you won’t be tossing and turning thinking about How’s the Scooby gang gonna get out of this one?

Let’s take a moment to talk about dialogue. If you’re a writer, take notes of Older’s dialogue. These characters come alive on the page because it’s not just the world of NYC that is fully realized it’s in how characters talk to each other, it’s in their nonverbal interactions, it’s in their silences. Take a page, any page from Shadowhouse Fall or any of Older’s book and read the dialogue out loud. Even when talking about spirits and otherworldly creatures it still sounds like a conversation you’d hear in the gas station or at a bus stop. I can’t get enough of Older’s dialogue. That’s the realness at the heart of Older’s work.

The stakes in Shadowhouse Fall in the spirit world are up a notch, because while her family and friends were in danger in Shadowshaper just for associating with her, now they’re targets themselves. In the physical world, Older keeps things true to a group of young POC running the streets of NYC. Illegal arrests and abuse from police and white teachers in primarily black classrooms tiptoeing through lessons on slavery and Civil Rights. And if that makes you uncomfortable then it’s time to have a good long conversation with yourself about why that is.

Anyway, I’m not here to get on a soapbox. Yet.

I really enjoyed this book as I did Shadowshaper. Sierra is a well rounded and conflicted character. It does seem to me though that she keeps making the same mistakes that she made in Shadowshaper of keeping secrets from people closest to her. The threat of a spy in this book makes it understandable, but there are a few chapters I wanted to knock my head against the wall. The goal though is to get Sierra to the point that she realizes she doesn’t have to shoulder this burden alone, that she has people who have her back and will step up next to her no matter what.

Still.

But if an MC doesn’t make you want to bang your head against a wall a couple times, are they really a good MC? People make the same mistakes all the time in real life and they, too, will make you want to jump out a window.

Shadowhouse Fall is an excellent follow up to Shadowshaper. You can read the first book and immediately pick up this one and feel like you’ve just turned to the next chapter. While I highly recommend all of Daniel José Older’s work, Shadowshaper Cypher series is at the top of the list.

 

As always, you can find Shadowshaper, and Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Read more about the author on his website: http://ghoststar.net/