I’m a big ol’ weeb, but even then, I acknowledge that West-African culture is no slouch. Disney’s Animal Kingdom introduced me to how beautiful and creative it is. Naturally, I would be all for reading Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong trilogy, published under Rick Riordan Presents.
The titular Tristan Strong is stuck at his grandparents farm out in the boonies when a weird doll thingy steals the journal of a dear friend of his. He chases it, and ends up punching a tree, which releases a demon into the magical world of African folklore. Oops. Now, he has to find this dude named Anansi and fix this mess.
In every YA novel I’ve read, it felt like there was a PSA about how bad racism is on every other page. In Tristan Strong, it definitely rears its ugly head, but in a thoughtful and creative way, such as a living slave ship as the antagonist of the first book. And relatively speaking, that’s the LEAST brutal it gets! Book two deals in violent protesting, which was very impactful during its initial 2020 publication. The final book gets unapologetically brutal; it is straight-up nightmarish (I don’t use hyperbole, so I literally mean that word by definition).
Going off of Tristan Strong alone, I’ve found African mythology to be one of the most interesting in the world. Tristan Strong really caught me by surprise. I get that there must be some creative licensing, but the African folklore assets felt like more than just “Oh, some gods of such-and-such element.” The implementation of it has more creativity and personality than any of the other Rick Riordan Presents books I’ve read. Anansi the trickster becomes a smartphone app, for example, and there’s a rapping vulture in book two. That’s only the tip of the iceberg!
If there’s any flaw, it’s that the cast isn’t 100% stellar. I wasn’t too big of a fan of Tristan himself at first, but after reading Legendborn, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that he’s got more to him than just the P.C. culture trope of “Hey, I’m Black! Love me or you’re racist!” He has a compelling character arc, a lovable enough personality, and one of the more unique superpowers in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Tristan starts off as generic, but he eventually has to deal with trauma and his own anxieties.
Sadly, most of the other protagonists feel kind of there, such as female lead Ayanna. Most of the gods, while very cool because of how some of them are historical figures, fall under the Rick Riordan trope of being exposition dumpers who can’t do anything and leave saving the world to a twelve-year-old. There are silver linings, though. Gum Baby, the aforementioned doll thingy, is amazing. She’s sassy, sappy (literally; she vomits tree sap), and memeable. Of course, Anansi is a great supporting protagonist. I felt it fitting to picture him as Miror B from Pokémon Colosseum.
Most Black empowerment novels I’ve read had a cartoonishly evil White supremacist as its main antagonist. Of course, Mbalia can write a truly evil villain without having to grab us with an easy hook like that. Tristan’s foe is simply named Cotton. That sumbitch proves himself to be one of the deadliest in any Rick Riordan Presents book—scratch that—in any book with Riordan’s name on it; including Riordan’s own books!
Tristan Strong did to me what few other books I’ve read have done: moved me to tears. While other books are appropriately brutal, they never once made me cry. Tristan Strong did. At some point in the middle of the third book, I just put it down and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes. It was a necessary meltdown, because Tristan Strong only scratches the surface of the real injustices that have occurred throughout American history.
Final Verdict: 10/10
Tristan Strong is awe-inspiring. Although the first book can be a bit of a slow burn, the series as a whole is practically perfect. It’s so good that the other Rick Riordan Presents books don’t remotely compare. There is only one franchise of Western literature that I enjoy more than Tristan Strong, and I mean that literally. I highly recommend this trilogy for anyone who has the heart to care about humanity.