I finally got around to trying one of the Rick Riordan Presents books! 😊 I enjoyed reading Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus novels, so I was glad and eager for novels published under his imprint since they would also be fun middle-grade fantasy novels but would instead tap into other world mythologies and folklores.
Apart from that, I was also interested in Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky because there are few middle-grade fantasy novels that center on a Black character and is grounded in Black culture and myths. So I was beyond excited to read this, and I enjoyed it!
Tristan Strong, book 1
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? (Goodreads)
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, but what I got was an exciting adventure filled with characters from African and African American folklore, such as Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Anansi, John Henry, Nyame the sky god, High John, and even people who can fly.
Whether or not you are familiar with these characters and their tales is of no matter. Although Tristan is quite knowledgeable about them, he is still amazed to meet them in the flesh, so he can’t help but reflect on their origin, their stories.
Tristan is fascinated by the characters his best friend, Eddie, and his grandmother often told stories about. Shortly after the loss of his best friend and losing a boxing match, Tristan leaves Chicago for Alabama to spend the summer holiday with his grandparents. But his first night at his grandparents’ farm is less than peaceful when he’s awoken by a feisty, sap-filled doll who tries to steal Eddie’s journal, which Tristan inherited.
Tristan chases the doll to an odd tree, where he accidently lets loose a haint, an evil spirit, in his attempt to regain Eddie’s journal from doll. This causes a rent in the earth into which Tristan and the doll (called Doll Baby) as well as the haint fall into. However, this tear in the earth turns out to be a portal to a fantastical world called Alke, where stories told in the real world come alive, or at least the characters in them do, and it’s there Tristan meets the folkloric figures he has read and heard about all his life.
But the haint Tristan and Doll Baby released is making the strife in Alke worse as the Maafa terrorizes Alke’s people. Tristan immediately jumps into the fight to help the people and proves to himself that he’s worthy of his family’s name — Strong.
(I think I’m getting better at this recap thing.) This is quite an adventure. I enjoyed reading it although I did so sporadically at first due to other reads and responsibilities I had to attend to. I enjoyed the story and thought it was fun, but I wonder if the numerous breaks from the book made the story seem longer than it is. The book has about 480 pages, which I think is quite hefty for middle grade even though the type is a little larger than YA and adult and there is more space between the lines and kids these days read more. Part of me thinks it could have been trimmed a bit, but maybe I think so because how I read it made the story seem longer… I don’t know.
For the most part, I enjoyed the story. I liked Tristan and how he develops, from being a bit indecisive and insecure about his strength and abilities to gaining enough confidence to wield his Anansesem powers. Anansesem is a person who has Anansi’s gift — the gift of storytelling. Tristan is a natural storyteller, and he uses this ability to save Alke from the Maafa. I loved this about the story, that although Tristan is a boxer and does use his physical strength sometimes, much more focus is placed on his artistic talent as a storyteller.
I also liked how the story makes references to slavery and the experiences of Black folks in America and the fact that some of African American history facts aren’t taught in schools and are hardly mentioned in history books (Tristan’s grandmother mentions this at one point). The majority of folkloric characters mentioned in the story grew out of tales slaves told, and the story mentions this fact. But the villains in the story are very interesting because they tie back to slavery and the experiences of the slaves. In the story, there are the horrific bone ships. Tristan hears moaning and crying coming from them but such sounds are actually echoes and memories from a different time, which isn’t expounded on in this book but it does make the reader wonder. Then there are the fetterlings, which are iron monsters that resemble shackles, and also brand flies and hullbeasts that can immobilize people and spread disease.
The story does a lot of great things. It gives us a protagonist who many can relate to as Tristan constantly doubts himself and wonders why anyone would consider him a hero. It also gives us a protagonist who is Black doing brave, unimaginable things in a fantasy world. And despite the grim situation the characters are in, we also get a lot of humor from my favorite character in the whole book — Doll Baby! (I’d love to see a film adaptation of the story just for the Doll Baby parts. Lol!)
“Respect the sap or get clapped.”
So yeah, I had fun reading this one and liked how African American folkloric characters and experiences are included. I do think the book was a bit long, and I sometimes got frustrated that the other characters expect Tristan to understand what’s going on but hardly ever explain things to him when he asks for clarification or more information (which stalled the plot too often), but it was a good read.
I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue with the next book, but I would recommend this one.