Happy Friday and welcome to my stop on the blog tour for TRISTAN STRONG KEEPS PUNCHING by Kwame Mbalia! I’m so excited because today I have an excerpt of the book to share with you! This book is truly amazing and I’m so excited to for you to find out more about it, PLUS enter for a chance to win a print copy!
Tristan Strong Keeps Punching by Kwame Mbalia
Series: Tristan Strong #3
Published on October 5, 2021 by Rick Riordan Presents
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Mythology, Retellings
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View Spoiler »After reuniting with Ayanna, who is now in his world, Tristan travels up the Mississippi in pursuit of his archenemy, King Cotton. Along the way they encounter new haints who are dead set on preventing their progress north to Tristan's hometown of Chicago. It's going to take many Alkean friends, including the gods themselves, the black flames of the afokena gloves, and all of Tristan's inner strength to deliver justice once and for all. « Hide Spoiler
Shocking twists, glorious triumphs, and a cast of unforgettable characters make this series conclusion as satisfying as it is entertaining.
It should be physically impossible for the human body to burst into flame. Aren’t there rules against that? I’m pretty sure my Life Science class covered it last year. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a firm believer that people aren’t meant to be matches.
So that’s why I stared in utter horror at the small silver flame popping out of my knuckles.
“I don’t like that,” I said, my voice sounding faint and distant to my own ears.
That was probably wrong to say. For several reasons. First, I was already trying my best not to lose my temper and attract attention. Our tour guide kept shooting angry looks at our group and shushing us. And we weren’t even being that loud! No more so than anyone else on the tour. Still, I was pretty sure my bursting into flame would get us more than a mean look.
We were stuffed in the middle of a crowd in a tiny museum crammed with fascinating exhibits. Granddad called it the Pharmacy Museum. From that name I expected to see boring displays, like the history of headache medicine or something like that. Instead, I learned about century-old tools used to probe, prod, and investigate the human body. Pretty cool! But again, the place was jam-packed. Everybody in the French Quarter must’ve come for a tour. So I definitely didn’t want to cause a panic because my fist had turned into a Flamin’ Hot.
Yes, the Strongs were in New Orleans. One last adventure before I headed back to Chicago to start the new school year. It was bittersweet. I mean, I was looking forward to getting home, being back in my neighborhood, and seeing my parents. Still, I’d had fun with Granddad and Nana. I’d eaten a bunch of key lime pie, done a little boxing, fallen into another world with powerful gods and made a bunch of folk-hero friends…. You know, the normal summer.
I was excited to visit the Big Easy, but this trip had come with a few strings attached. And—
“What don’t you like?” someone said over my left shoulder. “The artificial leech? C’mon! That’s so cool! Apparently back then you’d jam that thing into your—”
“Thank you, Terrence,” I whispered, covering up my burning hand.
The tour guide glared as Terrence continued to hiss facts at me. I shot a glare right back, and the guide huffed and turned around. Then I looked at the walking encyclopedia behind me. Terrence was a short, thin Black boy with a red-tipped lightning bolt dyed into his close-cropped hair. He was also one of those aforementioned attached strings.
“No more ancient surgery lessons,” I said in a low voice. “Please.”
He shrugged and continued to mutter trivia to the stranger next to him. I shook my head. Terrence was my nine-year-old cousin, Dad’s brother’s son, and the second reason I had to keep things to myself. The powers that be (Nana) had decided that Terrence needed a buddy, someone to partner with as we toured New Orleans, and guess who that was?
Terrence wore an oversize lime-green T-shirt with an icon of a flexed bicep on the front and strongs on the move written beneath it in bold black letters. On the back, black is a rainbow arced over interlocking hands in different shades of brown. Yeah. Brown and lime green. The message was great! The aesthetics? Eh. I (unfortunately) was wearing the same shirt, and four or five others in the Pharmacy Museum were sporting it as well.
You’ve probably figured out what was happening.
It was a Strong family reunion.
Relatives I hadn’t seen in years—and some I’d never met at all—had made the trip. Great-aunts, cousins, their children. I met my Uncle Jeff-Jeff and what he called his emotional support pug (also, strangely, called Jeff-Jeff). In fact, it seemed the only ones not here were my parents. They’d been unable to make the trip—something about car trouble—and Mom had stressed the importance of me representing for the Chicago Strongs. What I did would reflect on them. So, you know how it goes. Best behavior and all that.
Which brings us to the third reason I had to avoid making a scene. I was on a mission.
Two weeks ago I had returned from my second trip to Alke, the magical world where storied folk heroes like John Henry, heroines like Keelboat Annie, gods like Anansi and Nyame, and goddesses like Mami Wata reigned.
Unfortunately, it was also my last trip there. Alke had been destroyed, and the only way to save its inhabitants had been to weave the story of their world into mine. Now Alkeans were scattered across the country, and it was my responsibility to help find them and make sure they were okay.
Which you can’t really do when you’re a line buddy for your cousin.
“Where should we visit next?” Terrence asked as we exited the museum. “I could use some dinner first.” He pulled out his phone and started scrolling different travel websites, then gasped. “Tristan, look! There’s a pizza parlor that gives you an oversize spatula if you eat a whole supreme pie!”
He looked at me with way too much glee in his eyes (could that be a medical condition?) and I shook my head. “We’re supposed to wait here for Granddad, then we’ll move to the next stop.” The hotel, I hoped.
My phone vibrated. I froze for a second before reaching for it. Fortunately, the flame had disappeared from my knuckles, and Terrence was still busy reading about pizza. I pulled a sleek black smartphone from the back pocket of my basketball shorts.
The SBP, or Story Box Phone, was the magical treasure chest of Anansi tales. Nyame the sky god had transferred the stories from an actual box into my phone and then trapped Anansi himself inside with them. That hadn’t stopped the spider god from bossing and heckling me at every opportunity. The plus side? Anansi had turned out to be a talented web designer and had added all sorts of cool apps, including one that alerted us to the location of Alkeans. I now had the most advanced smartphone in this realm or any other.
The spider god stared out at me from the home screen. His expression was impatient as he pointed to the Maps app icon. “What’s taking you so long? We’ve got to get a move on!”
“Okay, where’s the alert coming from?” I asked Anansi.
I wanted to tell him about the knuckle flames, but just at that moment Terrence moved closer to me. I turned to prevent him from being able to see the SBP’s screen. I’m on the phone, I mouthed to him, pointing to the buds in my ears. He frowned but went back to scoping out which pizza he apparently wanted to cram inside his face.
“Hurry up, Tristan,” said Terrence. “I’ve always wanted a pizza spatula. I’m going to be a chef, you know. Open my own restaurant and serve my famous teriyaki pizza.” He licked his lips, and I shivered. Some food preferences should remain private.
I looked back at Anansi. “Well? Where should I send Nyame?”
Hey, I was only twelve. I couldn’t exactly go gallivanting across the country by myself to find every Alkean. But the sky god could.
Anansi shook his head. “No, you’re not listening. Right here, just a few blocks away. There’s an Alkean who needs help in the French Quarter!”
I inhaled sharply. Yes! We could handle this ourselves! All I had to do was give Terrence the slip, and then we could—
A tingling sensation pricked the corners of my eyes.
That was weird. I squinted. Rubbed at them. Blinked a few times, but the sensation wouldn’t go away. I had just turned to ask Terrence if there was anything in my eyes when I saw someone I recognized. He was whistling while walking down the street in the opposite direction.
King Cotton was strolling through the French Quarter without a care in the world.
The way I figure it, no one is owed anything. Not an easy life. Not a happy ending. Nothing. I learned that from Granddad. Life comes at you fast, like a flurry of jabs and hooks, and sometimes the only thing you can do is learn how to take a few on the chin and keep on standing.
And not every story is neat and tidy, either. Sometimes pages are missing, ripped out by forces beyond our control. Sometimes the villain wins. Sometimes the villain wins by a lot. And not every question may get answered. I mean, there are a hundred stories unfolding without our knowledge every day, and the details will never see the light of day because we either can’t or won’t seek them out. So, tough luck, the ending to that chapter is forever shrouded from view.
Until someone comes along and tries to tell it. Tries to tease out the answers, give folks some closure. That’s my role as an Anansesem—a seeker, recorder, and teller of stories. I didn’t ask for the title—the title chose me when I was in Alke. In fact, I didn’t want the job. I didn’t think I’d be any good at it. But I was wrong. And despite my best attempts to avoid the responsibility, the magic of my people’s stories didn’t care about my objections. Since I was the reason the characters in those tales were now scattered around the globe, telling their stories was one thing that only I could do.
Maybe Nana had said it best the first week after we’d returned to our world. She’d been laid up in bed, recovering from being abducted, and the two of us were talking about Alke. And stories. When I mentioned it was hard to find the energy to speak about the world I had destroyed, she peered at me over the new quilt she was working on.
“You gotta find the pulse of the story, baby,” she’d said. “Let the rhythm beat like a heart, and hold on to that pulse once you got it. Don’t change it, no matter what anybody else says. Even if they call you a liar or selfish, or say you lucky to be here, or tell you to go somewhere else if you so unhappy, you don’t let it go. Then speak those words. Tell the story.”
Tell the story. I wanted to do just that. But how could I when King Cotton, the haint who had corrupted everything in Alke, now had his sights on my world? I had to stop him first.
“Hoo HOOO! Boy oh boy oh boy.”
I’d shoved the phone back into my pocket and was two seconds away from tearing off after Cotton when Granddad walked out of a seafood grill a few doors down from the Pharmacy Museum. He was licking his fingers and doing a little jig, something everyone in the family called his good-eatin’ shuffle. Nana followed him, no stranger to Granddad’s apparent inability to say no to an order of battered clam strips. He had a bunch of take-out bags in his hand, and Nana was scolding him.
“Walter, you done stopped at every restaurant selling fried clams. You ain’t supposed to be eating those! What you gonna do with all them, plant them?”
Before I could duck away, she spotted Terrence and me and steered Granddad toward us. Granddad didn’t look up from his clam strips. He’d eat two or three, smack his lips and exclaim how good they were, then roll the bag closed and open another. It was like watching a squirrel eat nuts, except this particular squirrel knew how to throw a mean right hook and could ground you.
“Maaaaaaaaaaan, let me tell you about these clam strips right here!” Granddad said when they reached us.
I rolled my eyes. Anytime he started with a Let me tell you, I knew we weren’t going anywhere soon. Might as well unfurl a sleeping bag and put on your pajamas, you’re going to be there for a while. Few things riled up Walter Strong more than a crisp, well-fried clam strip. Which would have been fine any other day (that’s not exactly true, but what was I, a mere twelve-year-old, supposed to do?), just not when Cotton was on the loose.
My pocket vibrated twice. I checked to make sure Granddad was distracted (which was easy, since his eyes were closed as he bit into another clam strip) before pulling out the phone. Granddad hated how often I checked it. Meanwhile, Terrence told Nana about the pizza parlor.
The screen winked to life, and the worried face of a trickster god stared out at me.
On an average day, Anansi had a contagious smile and a twinkle in his eye. You never knew if he had your back or had a trick in his back pocket. He was the Weaver, the owner of all stories, from truths to tall tales, and his name was embedded in my title of Anansesem. But at the moment, the spider god looked far from his normal self.
I slipped in one earbud and his voice, normally melodic and lilting, was flat and strained. “Well, are we leaving or not?”
I peered around the crowded street filled with tourists just like me and my grandparents. It was early evening, but the Louisiana sun still beamed down on the French Quarter as if focused through a magnifying glass. My own reunion T-shirt (yes, still lime green) clung to my back, my black basketball shorts felt like they weighed thirty pounds, and my new all-black Chuck Taylors (That’s the second pair we bought you, Granddad had grumbled) felt like their soles were melting.
Still, everywhere I looked, people were laughing, joking, shopping, eating, dancing, and carrying on their merry way through what was possibly the most vibrant square mile in the whole country. Music thumped from Bourbon Street a few blocks over while the casinos on Canal Street flickered to life. Adults and teens and children walked by with powdered sugar dusting their lips and fingers as they bit into soft, hot beignets and—if you didn’t know any better—life was all good.
Yet a shadow lingered now, just out of sight. Cotton. The haint’s specter hovered in my peripheral vision, waiting for the right moment to strike.
I shook my head. “Not just yet,” I told Anansi. “But—”
“Time is running out, Tristan! We have to move!” There was resignation in his voice. He already knew the answer.
“I know,” I said. “It’s just… all my family is here.”
Anansi didn’t respond, and when I glanced at the SBP, I saw he was sitting with his back against the edge of the screen, slumped and depressed. I realized, too late, what I’d just said, and I opened my mouth to say more, but no words would bring back his family—specifically, his son—safe and sound, so I closed it. Sometimes condolences don’t ease the hurt—they just make things worse.
“Hey now, what’s with that face?”
Granddad’s voice came from behind me. He cradled another container of clam strips as if it were a baby, but he wore a concerned look. Nana was speaking to Terrence a few feet away, both of them huddled over his phone as they picked the next destination for our Strong subgroup. “You look like you just got sucker punched, boy. What’s the best way to defend against that happening again?”
I snorted, though there wasn’t much humor in it. Granddad always had a boxing analogy ready to apply to any situation, and he’d quiz me at various points throughout the day to test my knowledge of the sport. History, theory, techniques—it didn’t matter. He’d only let me go back to doing whatever I was doing if I answered his questions correctly.
If Gum Baby were here, she’d call it a Grandpop Quiz. I smiled, and then it faded from my face. The little loudmouth was lost out there somewhere, too. As much as I hated to admit it (and if you tell her, I will sing “The Ballad of the Gummy” nonstop outside your window), I missed the tiny sap monster.
“Well?” Granddad asked.
I sighed, stared into the crowd streaming past, and racked my brain. “Um, dodge it?”
“You take a sucker punch, you didn’t dodge anything. Not for a good minute. Try again.”
“Keep my head on a swivel? Make sure I’m always aware.”
Granddad pursed his lips. “Better, but still not all the way there. Think about it. Sometimes an opponent will get the drop on you, and they’ll send punch after punch at you. Those blows gonna land and land hard. Knock you back. Stun you. How do you defend against a flurry like that? How do you respond?”
I struggled to come up with an answer, but at that moment the SBP vibrated. Three times in a row. That wasn’t a signal from Anansi. That was an alert.
Granddad’s voice jerked me from my thoughts. He loaded me up with his take out boxes and bags so he could place both hands on my shoulders. Then he pulled me close, into a hug. My arms were too full to hug him back, but I was too surprised to respond anyway.
“Sometimes,” Granddad said, squeezing me tight, “you just have to hold on. Clinch, and catch your breath. The world is going to hit you hard, son. Clinch and don’t let go until you can keep on fighting. Hear me?”
“Yessir,” I said, my voice muffled by his shirt.
Sometimes I forgot that Granddad had been violently introduced to the world of Alke when Bear—under the poisonous influence of the haint King Cotton—had attacked the farmhouse and kidnapped Nana. Had Granddad felt helpless while we were gone? Sucker punched?
The SBP vibrated again. Granddad sucked his teeth and stepped back. “Boy, who is that blowing up your phone? Tell them Stanleys to give you a break.”
I groaned. “No, Granddad, no, no, no. They’re called stans. Stans.”
“Stans, Stanleys, Stanford Cardinals, you need to tell them to lay off.” Granddad took back his clam strips and popped a few more golden-brown pieces into his mouth, chewing angrily. “I’m trying to teach here, and you, Mr. Popular, can barely focus. Go on and answer that, boy. I won’t stand in the way.”
I grinned even as I pulled out the phone and began to back up. “It’s not like that, Granddad. I just need to check something real—”
“Tristan, watch out!”
Anansi’s shout came from the earbud I still wore, even as the SBP was snatched from my hand. I whirled to see a kid running into the crowd.
“Hey!” I cried.
“Tristan—” Granddad began, but I was already tearing off after the robber.
“C’mon, Granddad!” I shouted and sprinted down the street.
Excerpted from Tristan Strong Keeps Punching by Kwame Mbalia with permission from Rick Riordan Presents. Copyright © 2021 by Kwame Mbalia.
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What do you think about Tristan Strong Keeps Punching? Have you added it to your tbr yet? Let me know in the comments and have a splendiferous day!