Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia
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?
I feel like in writing a review of a Rick Riordan Presents book it’s impossible to not compare the book to Percy Jackson. Tristan Strong was just about as different from Percy Jackson as possible while still falling under the same modern-mythology umbrella.
What I loved about Tristan Strong was Mbalia’s use of storytelling as a world-building device. Unlike many mythology books, Alke is not so much a real myth-place, but instead has been created by the process of storytelling. The more often a story is told, the more powerful it becomes in Alke. Tristan’s main weapon or tool isn’t a sword or screwdriver, it’s storytelling. It was just so cool and unique and fresh!
I also really liked Tristan. He was a very relatable main character. While not as goofy or easily confused as Percy Jackson or Aru Shah, he had a more snarky, almost sarcastic, sense of humor. But what made him most relatable was his honesty about his fears, insecurities, and grief. I can’t say enough about how important it is for our boys to read a story about a guy who boxes but is also willing to admit he is afraid, or willing to cry.
The side-characters were hit-and-miss. Gum Baby really stole the show in this book. She is a sassy, no-nonsense, hilarious sidekick whose bark is definitely worse than her bite. Tristan’s other companions were forgettable enough that I couldn’t tell you their names. I was disappointed by how little John Henry is featured in this book, especially considering he is on the cover! But I loved him as the wise-wizard archetype.
Mbalia’s writing style is heavily influenced by oral storytelling traditions, and that was different to read, but I loved it! As an old fart, the slang was jarring for me, but I think kids will really enjoy the real way Tristan talks.
I only have two concerns about this book. The first is that it reads almost like a Young Adult book in terms of writing style (and length!), and I wonder if it maybe should have been marketed that way. Goodness knows there’s little enough YA Fantasy that boys actually enjoy. The second concern is similar, which is that I think a lot of the intricacies of the story and the world are going to go over the head of most young readers. For example, the villain, the Maafa, is named for the word used to describe the atrocities committed against the African people over the centuries. The minions are shackle-monsters that drag people to a bone ship. As an adult I understood the meaning of all of this, but I don’t think teens or tweens will. There’s also a division between the African-mythology people and the American-mythology people that, again, I don’t know a kid will fully understand. In fact, today I had a well-read student tell me they found the book confusing. I don’t want to put anyone off from reading it, all this is just to say kids and teens would be really benefitted by reading this with an adult. Maybe a teacher or a parent who can help them unpack all the stuff going on underneath the surface.
Overall this is an interesting, exciting, well-crafted book. I think teens especially will enjoy the book, and there’s enough depth for it to be used in the classroom. Highly recommend to mythology/Rick Riordan fans.