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Battle Hill Bolero by Daniel José Older

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Trouble is brewing between the Council of the Dead and the ghostly, half-dead, spiritual, and supernatural community they claim to represent. One too many shady deals have gone down in New York City’s streets, and those caught in the crossfire have had enough. It’s time for the Council to be brought down—this time for good.

Carlos Delacruz is used to being caught in the middle of things: both as an inbetweener, trapped somewhere between life and death, and as a double agent for the Council. But as his friends begin preparing for an unnatural war against the ghouls in charge, he realizes that more is on the line than ever before—not only for the people he cares about, but for every single soul in Brooklyn, alive or otherwise…
It’s no secret that I really enjoyed Half-Resurrection Blues back when I read it in 2015; Daniel José Older’s novels between then and now, Shadowshaper and (in the Bone Street Rumba series) Midnight Taxi Tango, showed a writer stepping up his game each time, so cracking the spine on Battle Hill Bolero, I went in with high expectations.

Taking high expectations to a Daniel José Older novel is a fool’s game, though, because they’re never the right expectations. Urban fantasy is a broad genre, and although the Bone Street Rumba fits perfectly into it, every novel has a very different feel; where the first was a detective novel, and the second more a crime and horror novel, this third is a war story, straight and simple. Only, as with all Older’s writing, it isn’t that simple. Battle Hill Bolero draws the threads of the previous two books together beautifully, with a real ensemble cast; it’s a testament to Older’s skill that the different voices are all still incredibly distinct, with not just attitudes but linguistic ticks all their own, even as they blend those linguistic ticks as they grow together (a really subtle touch). Character development for our pre-existing cast isn’t a huge feature of this novel, although Carlos and Sasha both come to terms with the events that lie between them; but for Krys, our new viewpoint character, we really see some development through the parts of the novel we get, well handled and beautifully written.

I also want to give Older a shout out for including multiple queer characters. Not only bisexual and homosexual characters, but also trans ones – in the background to the novel is Wendy, a nonbinary kid, and one of the secondary characters is a ghost called Redd, a trans man who was alive in the 18th century; the character in Battle Hill Bolero who questions it is a modern kid who gets shut down fast, and everyone else just accepts Redd, and it isn’t brought up again, and that’s a far-too-rare thing, especially in urban fantasy. This is a book in which the only white characters are on the wrong side, and all the queer ones are on the right side, and the trans man survives, and that warms my heart so much.

The only thing that remains to talk about is the plot, which is perhaps where Battle Hill Bolero isn’t strongest, but is by no means weak. The whole novel builds from its opening to its climax inexorably, with a kind of building fury preceding the storm that Older constantly harnesses in all the side-threads; there are a few elements that aren’t as well worked in, including the personal lives of some of our principals, but the whole thing ties into the central conflict that the series, and novel, build towards beautifully. Older continues to handle his action scenes fantastically and with a real viscerality, getting us up close and person and really letting the physicality move us, and his emotional scenes have a similar kind of strength, helping the slightly less smooth parts of the plot get past their bumps easily.

Battle Hill Bolero, then, is a fantastic, brilliantly written capstone to one of the best urban fantasy series of the 21st century, and one of the most aware of what that century looks like: not straight, white, or male, but more like Daniel José Older’s queer, colourful New York.

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