Half-Dead, Half-Alive, All Fun: Daniel José Older’s Battle Hill Bolero


Pic: cover detail from Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older/Penguin Random House ©

We’re just a few days into 2017, and what better way is there for a devoted reader to celebrate a new year than to dig into a brand-new book? Daniel José Older’s new novel, Battle Hill Bolero should have hit the shelves of your favorite book retailer yesterday, and if you’re looking for a new take on urban fantasy, this should be at the top of your list.

It’s the third in Older’s Bone Street Rumba novels: a series featuring Carlos Delacruz, a go-between between the worlds of the living and the dead. It’s a dangerous job, but one that suits him just fine — as he’s neither alive nor dead, himself. See, Carlos died once and was resurrected, but it didn’t take completely. Does that make him undead? Well, not exactly. Older didn’t use the word when we discussed the character in 2015 at New York Comic Con.

“Carlos Delacruz is half-alive, half-dead, so he kind of just fits in this in-between space, so he hangs out with dead people, he hangs out with living people. The Council of the Dead uses his status as an inbetweener to send him on all kinds of missions and do their dirty work for them.”

What kind of dirty work? Ghosts intent on bothering the living fall under the jurisdiction of the Council of the Dead, and Carlos is their soulcatcher: the guy they send in to deal with — and sometimes eliminate — particularly recalcitrant spirits.

In Battle Hill Bolero, Carlos’ status as an inbetweener puts him in the middle of an uprising between the Council and the supernatural creatures they supposedly represent. That’s not a good place to be, but it’s almost inevitable when you have friends and enemies on both sides like Carlos.

Older’s description of Carlos’ existence between worlds made me think of the way that some people of mixed race that I’ve shared conversations with have described navigating the social complexities of two different cultures. I’ve heard it described as “code-switching”: a kind of cultural fluency in which people learn to communicate in different ways depending on the social context.

Carlos, as a guy who is neither alive nor dead, must be the ultimate code-switcher. Older readily affirmed that there was a parallel between his character’s in-between state and the experiences of many people — himself among them.

“For me, being multicultural and all of the different roots that I carry with me, navigating those spaces, I put that into Carlos, but I also found that through writing that so many people have that experience, whether it’s gender, sexuality, race, or what have you, people know what it means to code-switch on a lot of levels.”

Older knows a lot about this kind of thing. Part of his own multicultural heritage is his adherence to the religious tradition known as Santeria. Similar in some ways to Voodoo, Santeria is a syncretic religion that draws from both Catholicism and the traditional faiths of Africa. It’s a peaceful religion, but it, like Voodoo, is the subject of sensationalism and hysteria.

There are likely tens of thousands of Santeria practitioners here in the United States, but it is a very small and often misunderstood religious community that has to deal with a lot of prejudice. Bone Street Rumba is fiction, but Santeria is part of the series, and it’s a nice change of pace from the genre’s usual European-flavored mysticism.

Battle Hill Bolero is set to be a game-changer for Carlos, and if you’re new to Older’s work, it’s going to be one for you, too. This is a series completely unlike anything else you’ve read before, and very much worth checking out.

About Battle Hill Bolero

The time has come for the dead to rise up…

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…