Book Review: “The Last Canto of the Dead”

Daniel José Older’s ‘Outlaw Saints’ saga comes to a thrilling conclusion with The Last Canto of the Dead.

Picking up where the first book Ballad & Dagger ended off, Mateo Matisse and Chela Hidalgo have made their way to the risen island of San Madrigal, only to find that what awaits is a continued battle for the soul of the land and the people in this life.

Their journey to the island forces Mateo and Chela to split up. Mateo heads back to New York to the Little Madrigal neighborhood to look for answers, while Chela stays behind. The battle that is being fought on the island is continued back in the states, with Mateo having to run the gamut of his parents, and a community wondering what is happening.

Between Mateo picking up the pieces of the recent battle on the streets, and Chela making sense of her deity powers, The Last Canto of the Dead is nothing like the first book in the series. Instead of seeing two main characters discover the truth about themselves, they must now learn to harness and apply their god-like powers to save their people.

The only question is, will Chela and Mateo be able to defeat the forces of evil that have had a hold on the spirit and the will of San Madrigal and its people?

Daniel José Older has done something unique and new in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. He has crafted not only an engaging story, but he has used his talent to build a world that he invented but feels as real as the ground that you walk on.

A master storyteller can bring an entire island to life with the skill of a carver, and the grace of a sculptor and illuminate it with the light of color that shines like the sunlight. Older’s success goes beyond just creating a compelling and powerful tale of acceptance, love, and diversity but his ability to build a family with his characters is one of the most striking parts of his tale.

The Last Canto of the Dead is part two in the story, and while many of the lengthy sagas from Rick Riordan Presents have filled the shelves of readers, Older’s work should be read as one book. The story keeps going and unlike other books where the backstory is mentioned and used to bring readers up to date on what previously happened, The Last Canto of the Dead reads like The Lord of the Rings. Read the first book if you want to know why certain things are happening in The Last Canto of the Dead.

I felt the rhythm of the first book, and the soul of the second. Mateo spends his time as a healer using his god powers to mend the wounded and save the dying, and he does that by finding the musical beat to their injury and then fixing it. This notation of how we see everyday interactions is interesting because for most, we walk through the world every day and miss the hum and shuffle of the music of our lives.

The reconciliation with the past is what drives the heart of the story, but for Chela and Mateo to learn from the past to move the people of San Madrigal forward is crucial. They must learn to accept, adapt, and apply their godly powers. How that is done, and what it means for the people of San Madrigal is at the core of the book. Beyond the mythological battle, Older has created a fantastical world that gives a home to people who have no home, refuge and myth to people that do not see themselves belonging anywhere and reminds readers about the music of our souls. From the battles, a reader will remember to listen during their day to hear the melody of the world.

While the rising of the lost island, and the battle for control is the centerpiece of the story, we also see how true love is an important component to the book. Whether it is Mateo and Chela finding their love, Mateo reconciling with his father and mother, or as we watch Tolo reconcile with his mom Mimi, readers will be reminded that love and support is crucial for success.

The Last Canto of the Dead is one of those rare books that stands out in its sheer audacity of creation while at the same time allows readers of all ages, faiths, creeds, and nationalities to find a home with the people of San Madrigal.

Daniel José Older has not only outdone himself, he has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that good stories can come from everywhere, but sometimes the best stories, the ones we hold dearly in our hearts allow our creativity to shine through.