Ballad & Dagger: We Don’t Talk About San Madrigal

If you’re reading this post, then that means I have managed to complete the first YA novel published under Rick Riordan Presents: Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger. But before we begin, we need to talk. No, I’m not breaking up with you! Anyway, the past two years have been really rough for me. COVID tore us apart physically, and the murder of George Floyd followed up on the mental side of things. The latter is what really broke me. Since his unfair death, some very influential, and politically extreme, individuals have been on a steady growth rate. And only a couple of months ago, I began to realize that almost my entire world—both I.R.L. and online—have been viewed through a lens provided by the political party that those aforementioned individuals follow. My parents insist that the followers of those people are few and far between. However, if they are really so few in numbers, how have they nonetheless influenced virtually every aspect of Western pop culture for the past two years? From South Park doing pandemic episodes, to childrens’ picture books teaching today’s generation how to be woke, the biggest conglomerates in the world now lick the boots of those people, regardless of their quantity. While I am struggling to comprehend life as I now understand it, one thing is certain: Ballad & Dagger will more than likely be the last novel of its kind I ever read.

In Ballad & Dagger, Mateo Matisse is a starving artist who just wants to play the piano. Sadly, fate has other plans for him. On a very special night for his little community in Brooklyn, someone announces that the long lost island of San Madrigal, where said community originated, will rise again. All it needs is the children who contain the three founding spirits’ souls. Naturally, Mateo is one of them. Oh, and some girl murders a guy for some reason.

Refreshingly enough, racism isn’t a big theme in this one. Or rather, you’re not constantly bludgeoned with it. The most brutal aspect of Ballad & Dagger is the fact that San Madrigal sank like Atlantis. As a result, the three big families that make up Brooklyn’s Little Madrigal are not inhabiting San Madrigal, and you’re supposed to feel miserable for them. The word “diaspora” is a favorite in the book, because apparently, the idea that home is where you’re surrounded by the people who love you is invalid. 

In case you’ve read some of the action-packed books from Rick Riordan Presents, just keep in mind that Ballad & Dagger is more like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, in that it is way more slice-of-life oriented than other installments. While trying to find the two remaining demigods, Mateo lives his normal life, hanging out with his friend, Tams, and the famous folk rocker, Gerval. Without the occasional blurb of supernatural horror, it’s easy to forget there’s anything supernatural in the book.

Things do ramp up in the second half, though. Sh** hits the fan, to say the least, and Mateo’s little community starts crumbling out from under him. A lot of the sequences are legitimately powerful. However, you have to put up with a lot of fluff to get there. 

My biggest problem was that I couldn’t connect to almost anyone. Mateo is one of two characters who felt engaging at all. As narrator, his feelings come in full force, and he ends up with quite a lot of baggage in the second half. The female lead, Chela Hidalgo, is the aforementioned girl who murdered the dude in the beginning, and she’s alright. She gets some legitimate character development, but is a pretty standard YA protagonist through and through. And yes, their transition from friends to lovers is as sudden as any YA romance novel (oh spoilers, as if it wasn’t obvious enough that a YA novel has romance).

Everyone else felt like a plot device. Tia Lucia was there to be the wise old lady, Anisette was there to be the political extremist b****, etc. Gerval plays a pretty pertinent role, but in the end, his character arc will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Saturday morning cartoon.

Sadly, I must also criticize the book’s worldbuilding. Riordan’s blurb says that San Madrigal is “as real as Wakanda or the Shire or Earthsea”, and I don’t get it at all. All that is divulged of the island, back when it wasn’t underwater, is that people worshiped the three gods who get trapped in the chosen ones’ bodies. Sure, its history plays a role in the plot, but that’s about it for the actual culture, beyond what you see preserved in Brooklyn. There is also next to no folklore present, except for some ghost who’s just there, and these weird mutant things.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I do respect and admire Rick Riordan. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never gotten my fetish for Japanese culture and folk metal. However, almost every time I read one of the Presents books, I am utterly flummoxed at what he saw in it. Ballad & Dagger is a great read by the second half, but there are so many urban fantasies that are more than just fifty percent enjoyable. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I do know that I’m pretty much alone in my stance. Maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did!

The Pandava Novels: Rick Riordan Presents’ Wildly Inconsistent First Series

Rick Riordan’s new publishing imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, is a great chance for other cultures to shine in the arbitrarily all-important spotlight of American popular culture. It all started with Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series. Is it a good first impression, or is it a hollow Percy Jackson knockoff? 

The Pandava novels begin  when the titular Aru Shah accidentally releases a villain named the Sleeper from a magic lamp in her mother’s museum. Fortunately, it turns out that she’s the reincarnation of one of five famous Pandava warriors, and she’s gotta go on a quest to whoop his booty before the Sleeper makes a big mess out of existence itself.

The writing of Pandava is a mixed bag. While the dialogue is fantastic (well, it’s fantastic if you like nonstop mainstream pop culture references), the descriptiveness of setpieces is a bit bare-bones, even if the ideas themselves show some level of passion and creativity. The action is exciting, which is at least something it has over the Storm Runner series. 

The characters are where Chokshi put most of the eggs into the basket, and they’re great, perhaps comparable to Percy Jackson’s cast. While Aru is a bit generic, everyone else is a real hoot. Her Pandava sister, Mini, is hilarious, due to her infinite knowledge of ways that they could die. Brynne is the typical, hot-headed, older-sister type, but she’s got a plethora of snide remarks to compliment her muscle. Brynn, introduced in book two, is a tomboy with some decent one-liners. Unfortunately, the weakest link ends up being the final two Pandavas: twins named Sheela and Nika. They occasionally move the plot forward, but when it comes to legwork, they do virtually nothing (and also have no personality).

The character who really won me over was Aiden, introduced in book two. As one of two lead male protagonists, he is super nonchalant, and he never fails to snap a cool pic with his camera, Shadowfax, regardless of the urgency of their situation. The other guyfriend is a naga prince named Rudy, who is as funny as his love for himself.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Oftentimes I found some aspects of Pandava to be… iffy. For starters, I felt like Chokshi was more concerned about putting as many characters from mythos in Pandava as possible. I get the excitement of wanting to share your culture with audiences, but cohesion comes first. If I was writing a book like this, I would’ve come up with the story first, then used my research to figure out which characters from mythos could appear at any given time.

There are also many, MANY times that Chokshi infodumps the actual tale of the folklore character instead of, you know, actually giving them a real character arc in the story. In doing this, she also fails to use the reliable technique of making us fall for plot twists through justified lying by omission. At least two developments are easily telegraphed because she tells us literally everything about them all too soon. In context, it’s probably meant to be a cruel irony; a major theme of the series tries to be how these characters don’t want to do what legends foretell and end up doing it anyway. However, I feel like that’s simply a poor excuse to use a smooth-brain twist on par with a Saturday morning cartoon.

While we’re on the topic of the characters from legend, i.e. what’s supposed to make us interested in the series to begin with, let’s talk about how awful they are. They are like Rick Riordan’s trope of “gods who could solve the problem but don’t” on steroids. They’re not only cynical and mean, but I forgot half of them over the course of me reading this series since 2019. Also, where was Best Girl Kali? You’d think that someone as mainstream-savvy as Chokshi would use one of the more iconic Hindu gods, but nope. Apparently that, of all things, would be selling out.

Another flaw is that I felt like Pandava got heavy-handed. From book two onward, Chokshi tried an interesting take on the portrayal of the antagonists of Hindu mythology, and created a morally ambiguous story. While the attempt is pretty good, the problem was how the results were handled, if that makes any sense. Basically, what I’m saying is that there are frequent instances of the narration itself telling the reader what questions they should be asking instead of letting them figure it out from context. I don’t know if Chokshi or the editors or someone else made this choice, but it definitely was a choice that comes off as undermining the intelligence of children. I’m sorry, but that’s something I cannot stand. Kids might be “dumb” at times, but that’s because of the many adults who numb their minds (and give them social media accounts).

And honestly, I felt like it went downhill from there (hot take, I know). There is just so much padding thanks to these numerous “trials” that keep getting shoved down the kids’ throats. With each book, I just cared less and less. And yes, it persists into the final book. Not gonna lie, I only resolved to finish Pandava because I wanted to roast the series on the Internet.

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Final Verdict: 7.5/10

The Pandava series is… fine. It has good humor, sometimes solid writing, and a metric-ton of love for itself and Hindu mythology. It’s just not the awesome thing that Riordan and a lot of people say it is. Like, have I been reading an alternate crappy version of it? At times, it’s ham-fisted, conceited, and has some annoying, smooth-brain plot developments. It would’ve been a rock solid trilogy, but as a quintet, it’s a slog. There’s no harm in reading Pandava, but I feel like it’s overall a net loss of time. 

Anyway, with that, I’m off to Disney AGAIN! Next post will be on May 7th, and it’s gonna be a doozie!

The Last Fallen Star: My First Ever Impression of Korean Culture

As someone who’s been alive within the last ten years, I have borne witness to the sudden rise of South Korea’s influence on the world’s entertainment industry. And considering I’ve been into Japanese culture for a long time, I’ve basically been jealous of Korea to this day. Anime have been out internationally for decades, and only a handful of them are accepted by your garden variety “all-American”. In my experience, it feels like Japan has only gotten more disdain as facets of their culture continue to come into the fold. And yet, all it took was ‘Oppa Gangnam Style’ for South Korea to be welcomed with open arms. Nowadays, manhwa and webtoons seem to be eclipsing Japan’s manga industry, and BTS the biggest active music group in the world, with their other K-Pop compatriots not far behind. Eventually, I just lost it, and absolutely HAD to know if I was missing something. And my voyage into Korean culture begins with Graci Kim’s novel, The Last Fallen Star, one of two Korean I.P.s from Rick Riordan Presents.

In The Last Fallen Star, you have your usual secret coven of witches. I’ll give you three guesses as to what the main protagonist, Riley Oh’s, problem is. …Did you guess that she has no magic? Yep, that’s exactly the case. The other old beans in the clan try to act like they don’t think she’s just baggage, but it’s not a particularly good facade. So, what does Riley do? She and her sister, Hattie, perform an illegal spell that has a chance to give Riley temporary powers. I’ll give you three guesses as to what results.

If you guessed that it goes horribly wrong, then that would be correct, but also an understatement. In fact, Riley’s parents end up in a position where they decide if they or Riley get permanently ejected out of the clan. Riley decides for them, and boots herself out, afterwhich the sisters perform ANOTHER illegal ritual that puts Hattie’s life at stake. Of course, the solution is for Riley, and her friend Emmet, to find a MacGuffin. Why wouldn’t it be?

Positives first. The story, unlike other Presents books, doesn’t waste time. The premise being entirely centered around MacGuffin-finding screams padding, but it’s actually relevant to a much bigger plot. It’s much more dialogue-driven than other Presents books, but not having random Korean monsters attack just for the sake of action is another plus for the pacing.

Sadly, that’s about where the positives end. The Korean-mythology-based worldbuilding is pretty typical. It’s your garden variety urban fantasy, with the different portals to witch-land in the middle of unassuming public areas, various rituals, and really dense-headed coven bigwigs. The specific legends used in the story, such as Korea’s creation legend, are… alright, I guess. Even taking my Shinto bias in mind, it’s your usual “the world is created perfectly and then someone does something stupid.”

The cast also leaves something to be desired (big surprise coming from me). Riley, being adopted, magicless, and wanting to be included in social circles, ticks all the boxes on the “relatable” checklist. I also dislike her for using the word “amazeballs”. The male lead, Emmet, is your typical best friend, and his arc revolves entirely around his response to the inevitable big plot twist reveal. We don’t get to see many gods—in fact, we only see one—and she is not as memorable as she could’ve been.

The only other issue I have is with the climax. It’s a good climax from a sheer entertainment standpoint, but I feel like some stuff happened solely for shock value. Also, the final twist feels like Kim trying to make readers feel that participation-trophy-specialness, which—according to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck—leads to mental health disorders.

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Final Verdict: 8/10

The Last Fallen Star is the second best Rick Riordan Presents book I have read thus far, which is not saying much considering that I don’t like most of them. And even then, I still didn’t love it like I do that one series I will be covering at some point. I’m willing to finish this series, but I don’t think I’m going to learn why people like this particular brand of mythology.

The Storm Runner Trilogy: Percy Jackson but with Mayan Folklore

The Rick Riordan Presents publishing imprint has breathed new life into Western children’s literature. Debuting with the hit Pandava novels, Riordan has allowed writers to present other foreign cultures in a Percy Jackson-styled fashion to offset the overabundance of ancient Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology in popular culture. In today’s blog, I’m covering The Storm Runner trilogy, written by J.C. Cervantes and published by, well, I just told you.

The Storm Runner stars Zane Obispo, who is just about to enter Catholic school. But this plan gets turned on its head when he runs into a beautiful and enigmatic girl (like you do), named Brook. She tells Zane that he is apparently destined to release the Mayan god of death, Ah-Puch, and he needs to stop that from happening. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

While I was groaning at the whole, “unremarkable boy who gets bullied is approached by the cute girl who tells him he’s special” schtick, The Storm Runner manages to be pretty darn entertaining. The story has fast pacing as well as that great, sarcastic humor that Percy Jackson fans know and love. There’s also some unique meta aspects to the series as well. The first installment is actually an in-universe book that Zane writes in between that and the second installment. He publishes it as a means of bringing other demigods together to do plot stuff. 

Unfortunately, I had some issues with it. The Rick Riordan Presents I.P. is meant to generate interest for other cultures in the minds of ignorant American children, but I didn’t find The Storm Runner that interesting. I’m sure the research is solid, but none of the Mayan gods themselves come off as particularly fascinating, nor do they feel creative in the context of the narrative. Sure, they integrate some modern elements into mythical locations, but that’s been done before numerous times.

This next problem is more-so a nitpick, because it’s entirely based on a single line of dialogue that really stood out to me, and because of it, I’ve wanted to assume that Cervantes thinks her audiences are actual idiots (since I take things literally on account of my autism). Basically, they end up in some city in Mexico at one point in the second book, The Fire Keeper. One of the characters doesn’t know which Mexican city it is at a glance, and in response, another character literally calls them “an uncultured swine”. I’m sorry, but that’s indirectly insulting the demographic. If they’re reading this to learn about another culture, then why berate them for not already knowing everything about it? I don’t know who the editor was, but this got past somebody at the publishing house, and it astounds me. 

The Storm Runner is further marred by some seriously uninspired characters. While Zane has some good one-liners, he’s really generic. Plus, he makes a certain eye-roll-worthy decision early on that really reduced my initial enjoyment of the books. Also, I felt like his lame leg was a “shock value thing” meant to market the series toward physically disabled people. The reason is that he later gets a power that makes his leg normal, which oh-so conveniently saves the author from having to worry about his leg during any scene with urgency.

Meanwhile, Brook is that role model-esque tomboy, and her sister, Quinn, isn’t that much better. Uncle Hondo, the supporting male, is the best character of the bunch, since he takes the scenario of the series really well for a regular human, and offers some good comic relief. I also like Mrs. Cab, the designated person with the prophecy (but with how many eyeballs she has in her house, she might as well have a prophec-EYE (kudos if you get that reference)), but she doesn’t get much screentime. Book two introduces Renata Santiago, a cute demigod girl whose only personality trait is believing in Erik von Daniken’s alien conspiracy theories that are about as ancient as the Maya themselves at this point.  

Normally, when I review these books series, I would discuss my thoughts on the final book in the last paragraph, since the ending is really important. But I’m gonna be honest, I lost interest in the story completely. When I had read book two, it was still new, so I had to wait for The Shadow Crosser to come out. And apparently, I just completely forgot a lot of the story. I know it makes me sound unprofessional, but that’s my honest experience. They kind of shoehorn in some MacGuffin (and these snarky twins) out of nowhere, while the characters spend a lot of time being all like “Oh my god the villains are so galaxy-brained what’re we gonna do!” 

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Final Verdict: 7/10

I’m sure that Cervantes put all her soul into this, but I don’t feel it. It’s even made me question whether or not I would still enjoy Percy Jackson if I reread it for the first time in over a decade! Honestly, I don’t know what The Storm Runner‘s many fans see in it. Like I said before, it does not give off a particularly fascinating impression of Mayan folklore. There’s no real harm in reading it, but I guarantee you that the Rick Riordan Presents I.P. has some way better stuff to offer (which I’ll get to when I get to it).