TW: This review and book deal with slavery and intergenerational trauma, as pertaining to the Black American experience.
So I wasn’t totally sold on the Riordanverse books, I’ll admit. The idea seemed nice – but I wasn’t sure how they were going to go. Dragon Pearl was incredible, and that helped ease my concern.
But Tristan Strong? Tristan Strong is INCREDIBLE. I was never that into Percy Jackson, hence my hesitation (once you’ve formally studied Classics, errors stick out like sore thumbs…) but Kwame Mbalia’s book is everything I could ever want from a mythic portal fantasy.
The book opens on our eponymous hero, the would-be boxer Tristan, en route to his grandparents’ farm for some “time to reflect”. He recently lost his best friend in a horrible accident, and processing through therapy has helped, but he’s still hurting. He has a notebook of his friend’s stories, but it’s too hard for him to read them yet. But then – then the charm on the book begins to glow.
Well, maybe it’s nothing. But then he wakes up in the middle of the night to some strange, small creature stealing the book. He gives chase, makes the mistake of breaking a bottle tree, and bam! He’s thrown through the portal along with the invader, drowning in a sea with bone-ships after him.
Tristan Strong, in a lot of ways, hits the appropriate notes for a coming-of-age portal fantasy. He’s grieving, his friend makes an appearance right at the end, he has powers he doesn’t know about or understand yet – but what makes the book so incredible is that it’s this story from a Black boy’s perspective. His cultural heroes aren’t Dionysus and Apollo; they’re John Henry and Brer Rabbit. His monsters aren’t wolves or dragons; they’re living shackle-snakes with mouths made of manacles, or the twisted, rotten remains of slaver-ships. The tension between the African homeland gods and the “folklore” heroes echoes tensions between American Black diaspora and African countries.
None of this is stuff that I can directly speak on, and plenty of incredible Black reviewers have reviewed this book. But I can say that despite only having a passing knowledge of many of the heroes (I know about the Brers and a little about John Henry; more than some people but still not much!) I was immediately sucked in. If you’re concerned about familiarity, don’t be.
The book’s narration is also a wonderful blend of middle-grade humour (everything about Gum Baby is a freakin’ delight), Tristan being sassy, and moments of very real insight. Tristan is learning how to navigate a new world and trying to process his grief on top of it; he’s an incredibly real character, and one I would love to see more of in further books one day.
Tristan Strong Punches A Hole In The Sky is available most places, but especially directly from the Read Riordan site!
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