~Reviewed by Amanda Smith
“You control the story, you control the narrative, you control the power.” – High John
Tristan Strong carries a lot of stories with him. The stories of his father and grandfather’s boxing success, compared to his first-match failure. Or the story of how his best friend, Eddie died in a bus accident, while he survived. The folk lore and African mythology his nana had told him. The journal in which Eddie collected those stories.
So, when a sticky little doll baby appears in Tristan room at his grandparents’ house in Alabama, squelches its way across the floor and nabs Eddie’s journal, Tristan fights hard to retrieve it. In the fight with Gum Baby, he punches a hole in the fabric that separates our world from the realm where folk heroes are gods of Midpass and African gods rule Alke. On his epic hero’s journey to stop the destruction caused by his punch, he meets a fascinating cast of gods, heroes, and villains. He travels to amazing cities; fights alongside fierce warriors; meets the pain of his past head-on; and discovers the strength of story and his power as Anansesem (magical storyteller) to wield it. He learns the rip between Midpass and Alke existed long before his careless fist caused the tear in the sky, and healing lies in telling all the stories of the past – even the painful ones.
TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY (Rick Riordan Presents, Disney.Hyperion 2019) is Kwame Mbalia's powerful debut novel and Coretta Scott King honors recipient. It tells not only Tristan’s story, but also, through symbolism, the history of slavery and the Middle Passage. Bringing often untold African-American history, alongside West African Mythology adds a fascinating, educational and important layer to this novel. While one could read the novel as pure entertainment, I often paused my reading to research a character or name, and discovered deeper meaning. And some of the history on which Mbalai touches directly connects with current conversations around systemic racism.
However, the novel is never dull or didactic. Mbalai delivers mythology and history with huge doses of humor, Marvell-movie-like fast-paced-action, lovable characters, authentic dialogue, goosebump-inducing place-descriptions, and the most beautiful magic scene I have ever read. Mbalia’s use of language is decadent: smuggled in bits of internal rhyme, dashes of alliteration, sensational imagery, clever humor, and masterful never-forced use of dialect. Tristan Strong might be an Anansesem, but the true story weaver here is Kwame Mbalia!
Even though the entire novel is a perfect mentor text for use of language in world building, I was truly struck by the tightness of the first chapter, and would highly recommend it as a study in beginnings. At the end of page fourteen, internal and external conflict have been established, we know Tristan’s shame and struggles, names of African gods have been introduced, we have a mysteriously knowing Nana, and a strangely glowing journal that keeps showing up in unexpected places. As Tristan Strong stated, “I mean really, what could go wrong?”
The sequel, TRISTAN STRONG DESTROYS THE WORLD will release October 6, 2020. I can hardly wait to revisit these characters and this world!
To learn more about Kwame Mbalia visit https://kwamembalia.com/
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