Book Review: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

Title: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

Author: Kwame Mbalia

Genres:  Fantasy

Pages: 496

Publisher: Rick Riordan Presents

Review Copy: ARC from publisher

Availability: Available now

Summary: Seventh-grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan chases after it-–is that a doll?-–and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree. In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world. Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American gods John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?

Review: I remember on Twitter a few weeks back Kwame Mbalia posting a pic of what Gum Baby looked like and as I read I couldn’t get that picture out of my head. The intensity on her face, her cute little afro puffs, just stayed with me as I imagined this tiny spitfire of a character raising hell all throughout the book. Let’s just say she became my favorite character and she also grew on Tristan as well. And that is the strength of “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky”; the characters. Tristan’s grandfather is only in a few chapters at the beginning of the book and even he makes a strong impression. Mbalia takes these mythological figures and humanizes them in a way that rounds them out where we see not just their greatness but their faults as well. I loved John Henry when I was a kid, but really, in the old tales he’s a fairly one dimensional character. Not so in this novel. There was a moment where John is exhausted from all the running and hiding from the iron monsters and he puts down his hammer and sighs. I really felt that. It allowed me to really see the weight of “being John Henry” had on him and that even a great hero can have doubts.

The world building in “Tristan Strong” is also impressive as Mbalia has created this whole second world connected to ours through our stories. This is a trope that is not often used, but it is one of my favorites. I love stories where our dreams, our hopes, our prayers, our beliefs give life to a wholly complete world and through a character entering the world, shows how powerful these beliefs, these stories are. Having West African mythology and African-American folk heroes in one story shows how our stories and beliefs survived slavery, though in the novel there is tension between the two groups. However, they end up working together to save themselves from the Maafa. Because of Mbalia incorporating so much, I loved learning new gods and stories that I hadn’t known before and to have them depicted in such a rich, detailed world was uplifting.

I realized I haven’t talked much about Tristan and that is because he really is a typical 7th grade boy, and well, I work in a middle school – sometimes I need a break from a 7th grade boy, so I sometimes had problems connecting with Tristan. However, Tristan is a character with a good heart who is confused as he just lost his best friend, and at the same time is trying to find his place within his family, specifically what it means to be a “Strong.” His dad was a popular boxer and Tristan longs to follow in his footsteps, but loses his first fight. When we meet Tristan he’s feeling pretty defeated. I felt for him because Tristan is truly at a age of transition where adolescents no longer feel like children (in their mind) but don’t have the skills to be adults. It is a funky age and Mbalia nails it with Tristan.

I really enjoyed this Kwame Mbalia’s debut novel and am greatly looking forward to the sequel.