Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky
Still grieving the death of best friend Eddie, Tristan Strong bombs his first big boxing bout. To "get some fire in his belly" (as his Granddad says), he travels from Chicago to Alabama to work his grandparent's land for the summer.
On his first night, as he adjusts to the quiet and darkness of the farm, Tristan is attacked by an anthropomorphic doll baby made of sap. In a high-pitched voice, Gum Baby issues hilarious threats, then snatches Eddie's journal, Tristan's only physical reminder of his friend. Tristan chases her and finds her in the woods near "the weirdest tree [he'd] ever seen," with "bottles of every shape and size... stuck on the ends of the branches." During a brief, sticky altercation, Tristan accidentally punches a hole in the bottle tree--which is also a portal--and rends the sky of Alke, Gum Baby's world. Alke is ruled by gods straight out of African diasporic folklore. These gods--such as Brer Rabbit, John Henry, Nyame the sky god--are fueled by the power of story and threatened by sentient chains, slave ships and the haint Tristan's punch released. It's only by putting up his dukes and fighting on the side of Alkeans that Tristan can conquer the spirit, plug the hole and get back home.
Like the African diaspora, Kwame Mbalia's gods are portraits from mixed stories and legends brought together by common, often orally communicated, histories. The world-building is comprehensive, with unapologetically black spaces that speak to a collective ingenuity such as the breathtaking descriptions of Wakanda-esque fortifications in the mountain region, Isihlangu. Although action-filled, slow reveals of important information make the plot lag. Still, Mbalia's debut packs a powerful punch on many levels. --Breanna J. McDaniel, freelance reviewer