Last Canto of the Dead, the epic conclusion to the first YA duology from Rick Riordan Presents is finally here. Naturally, we’ve already devoured it. But if you’re anything like us, you still have tons of questions. Thankfully, New York Times bestselling author Daniel José Older has all the answers.
Daniel recently took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to answer some lingering questions about how the story of Mateo, Chela, and San Madrigal initially came to life.
No need to worry about any spoilers for Last Canto of the Dead, but you might want to wait until after you’ve finished Ballad & Dagger before proceeding (as if you haven’t already).
Did you already know the plot of Last Canto of the Dead when you wrote Ballad & Dagger, or did it evolve?
Daniel José Older:
I didn’t even know the plot of Last Canto when I started writing Last Canto hahaha! Some books — Ballad & Dagger was one of them — demand to be outlined to within an inch of their lives before you even write word one. Last Canto was the opposite. I knew the big set pieces of it, sure — that we’d be on San Madrigal and . . . that’s about it, actually! I knew there’d be a big war in there somewhere. But mostly, this story wanted to flow out as we went, so that’s what we did.
Can you tell us about some of the world-building techniques you used to flesh out San Madrigal as a setting in Last Canto of the Dead?
It was tricky because San Madrigal by this point has become a place that is both lived in and not at the same time. It’s been underwater for more than a decade, so there are mostly only spirits and creatures there, but it was also once home to thousands of people. It’s a ghost town, in a way (pun intended). This meant that we had to feel the way nature had taken it over but still get a sense of what once was, the many lives and stories that inhabited the place for centuries.
Fortunately, one of my characters was able to take us on a vivid, real-life tour of San Madrigal’s past, and that went a long way to fleshing out the sense of place and culture.
Unlike Ballad & Dagger, Last Canto of the Dead is told from the perspectives of both Mateo and Chela. What inspired this narrative choice? And what was it like to finally get into Chela’s head?
Chela really came to life for me while I was writing B&D. I really wanted to make sure she wasn’t just an object of Mateo’s attraction or a pretty, tough girl, because that’s so easy and we see it so much, especially with women characters. And she really did grow and become real as I was writing, to the point that it was so clear she needed her own story to be told in the sequel.
I also knew a dual narrative would be important because I wanted to spend a lot of the book on San Madrigal itself but not at the cost of Brooklyn, which is such an important piece of the puzzle in this diaspora story.
Can you tell us a bit about Mateo and Chela’s relationship at the start of Last Canto of the Dead?
It’s messy because they’ve found each other after centuries of loving each other and then fifteen years apart, but also their memories have mostly been wiped and they’re still putting the pieces together. And then on a very basic human level, they’re just two kids who have been through hell together and really care about each other. And, like a lot of folks, they don’t entirely know what to call the thing that they are, how to classify it, or if they should even bother giving it a name.
So there’s an epic divine love element and then there’s a very regular, relatable element and all the tensions between the two. And that’s before they find out they’re not supposed to be together at all and their union could upend the natural order of the world!
Both Mateo and Chela are the physical manifestations of ancient gods. In Chela’s case, more than one. How did you manage to write Mateo and Chela as authentic teenagers while balancing their vast power and histories?
That was definitely the challenge of the series, and there were moments when I was like, D— what did you do?? But fortunately, that was also a very real challenge for Chela and Mateo to figure out, too, so their inner struggles with that dynamic and the outward manifestations of those struggles all became very key parts of the story. They both have some amount of dual consciousness going on, especially Chela, and that’s a tricky line to walk, narratively speaking. But I love a good challenge!
Many of the themes found in both Ballad & Dagger and Last Canto of the Dead focus on the concept of dichotomy—destruction and creation, chaos and order, harmony and discord. Why did you feel it was important to explore these complex and contrasting relationships?
Unity of opposites is a spiritual notion that I think a lot about even when I’m not writing books. It’s so rich and full of messy—impossible riddles alongside deep-seated truths — so I knew it would be ripe for a narrative theme, and if I deployed it right, it could really bring a novel to life and add layers of deeper conversations.
For new readers, can you tease a few obstacles or challenges that Mateo and Chela face during the events of Last Canto of the Dead? Both as a partnership and as individuals.
Both of them really go through the wringer in this book, not gonna lie. What Mateo and Chela face is nothing less than the destruction of their world and everyone they love. The forces arrayed against them have been planning this moment for ages, and Mateo and Chela are just getting their bearings and starting to understand who they really are.
This is a journey into their own hearts as well as the heart of San Madrigal itself, and it’ll take everything they have to come out on the other side with their hearts and souls intact.
Endless gratitude for Daniel for sharing his perspective with us. His thoughtfulness, compassion, and masterful storytelling skills are evident on every page of the Outlaw Saints duology.
But don’t just take our word for it. Experience the breathless finale to the story that started in Ballad & Dagger and pick up your copy of Last Canto of the Dead today!