Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older

The Civil War meets dinosaurs in Daniel José Older’s latest novel, Dactyl Hill Squad.

You heard that right.

Civil War + Dinosaurs—a Middle Grade adventure that mashes American history with pre-history.

Older is a favorite of ours here at The Book Wars. Check out our reviews of his Bone Street Rumba series, his YA fantasy Shadowshaper, and his thoughts on writing in our World of Word Craft series. A self-professed lover of monsters, Older must have had a blast imagining Dactyl Hill Squad, where kids hitch rides on the backs of pterodactyls and triceratopses trudge through the urban jungle below.

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?

The madcap concept of dinosaurs in 1860s New York City gives this book a lot of zany appeal, but I was impressed with how the story retains its seriousness. This is guns-blazing, teeth-gnashing adventure but it never devolves into slapstick or comical action. The stakes are life or death; the consequences, gut-wrenching. Older pulls no punches in portraying the harsh racism of the period and the violence of the Draft Riots that rocked Civil War-era New York.

Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad was released 11 September 2018 from Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic); 272 pages with historical & scientific glossaries included.

As a Canadian, my Civil War knowledge is limited, so Dactyl Hill Squad provided a good reminder that the conflict was more complicated than simply North vs. South. Even in the supposed safe zones of the North, pro-slavery forces were at their sinister work, abducting Black and Latin-American children for shipment to the Slave States. The novel’s antagonist, Richard Riker, was a real historical figure who ran such a ‘Kidnapping Club’ and although Cuban-born Magdalys and her friends are primarily fictional, the struggle of children against men like Riker in New York City would have been all-too-real.

Older portrays that struggle on land, sea, and air, with action sequences–and accompanying dinos–that build a lot of steam, especially through the second half of the book in the build-up to the climax. In both the heat of such battles and the quieter moments in between, the friendships in Magdalys’ squad are a highlight of the book. From ever-dancing Two Step, geography whiz Mapper, and Cymbeline, a shotgun-wielding Shakespearean actress, the novel bursts with a lively cast of characters who always have each other’s back. Given the great squad dynamic, I wouldn’t have minded even more scenes showing their banter bounce around. There were also a few moments where the chapter endings felt clipped, but the story drove to a satisfying conclusion—and the promise of further adventures to come. (The sequel, Freedom Fire, comes out next May.)

Magdalys’ inner conflict was also nicely fleshed out, as she agonizes over whether to help her friends in New York City or go South to aid her injured brother, Montez, at the front.

***SPOILER ALERT***

In addition, Magdalys’ liberation of a chained pteranodon (a huge flying dino) had strong resonance with her squad’s own quest for freedom—and the massive power and potential unfurling within her. We get less insight into Magdalys’ remarkable ability to control dinosaurs with her mind–a power unseen since the ancient dino-riders of myth-time–but I suspect Older will reveal more in the sequel.

On the whole, Dactyl Hill Squad provides a fast-paced blend of history and fantasy, and an action-packed ride nearly as wild as a spin on dactyl back!

–Guest review by Russell F. Hirsch