I was so delighted when I heard – halfway through this book – that it had been nominated for the Andre Norton Award! Carlos Hernandez is married to one of my favorite authors of all time (C.S.E. Cooney) so even though I had never read anything by him before, I knew ahead of time that I would love his work. And while I didn’t love this book as much as the other middle grade novel I read recently, it was a lot of fun, chock full of great ideas and lovely characters. It definitely deserves its nomination.
SAL AND GABI BREAK THE UNIVERSE
by Carlos Hernandez
Published: Rick Riordan Presents, 2019
Ebook: 382 pages
Series: Sal and Gabi #1
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: There’s all sorts of bad advice out there about how to deal with bullies.
How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker?
When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared. Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken–including his dead mother–and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk. A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in his mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.
Sal has just moved to Miami with his Papi and American Stepmom and his first week at school is… let’s say eventful. Dealing with bullies, making new friends, trying out his magic tricks on unsuspecting students or teachers – and that’s just one side of the coin. Because Sal also has a strange ability. He can open portals into parallel universes and “borrow” things from them – which you’ll have guessed makes doing magic way easier and quite a bit more awesome. While many reviews of this book mention that it is overloaded with ideas – a claim I have read about two middle grade books I’ve read recently and which makes me wonder if people just don’t have confidence in younger kids being able to understand stuff… like seriously, they’re young, not morons! – so obviously, I disagree. Sure, many ideas are introduced here but Hernandez does so slowly without ever overwhelming his readers with too much at once.
Things start out pretty normal. We do get to see Sal using his ability in the very first chapter, but many of the other ideas are introduced later over a longer period of time. At first, he just has to deal with the bully Yasmany, student body president Gabi’s many questions, and the fact that some people at school think he’s a brujo. Which leads me to the first reason I enjoyed this book so much. Sal has Cuban roots, so there are quite a few words and phrases, sometimes even entire lines of dialogue, in Spanish. When the plot calls for it, these are explained or translated by Sal, but when it’s not that important, there is no translation. From the reviews I’ve read, this has made quite a few people unhappy. Not me! Sure, I speak just enough Spanish to have understood everything anyway, but even if I hadn’t, I felt that it just added a layer of realism to the story. Many of the characters are native Spanish-speakers so it’s only natural that they would end up talking Spanglish a lot. Again – if the information conveyed in Spanish was vital to the plot, it was repeated in English, so there is no way you can actually miss anything even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish.
The characters reminded me a lot of a Becky Chambers book. Not because we’re dealing with alien species here, but because they are a diverse mix of super nice human (sometimes robot) beings. If I had been in a different mood whilereading this, that might even have been annoying. There’s only so much sucrose I can take in a book. And everyone is just so damn nice and understanding all the time! But my mood was just right and so I enjoyed Gabi being super mature for her age, Sal always trying to see other people’s perspetive, and the teachers being kind and helpful. Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely not a representation of what goes on in the real world but sometimes it’s nice to read about a bunch of characters who simply try their best to be good people. The fact that Sal is a type-1 diabetic probably helped him be aware that you can’t necessarily see what a person is going through just by looking at them. He looks healthy after all, but that doesn’t mean his life is super easy all the time. And who knows, maybe even that bully isn’t just mean for the fun of it?
This is one of those books where you can’t really pinpoint what the plot is but it kind of flows nicely anyways. On the one hand, Sal’s opening portals may have severe consequences on the universe (thus the title). On the other hand, he has to prepare a play for school, deal with his diabetes, help his friend Gabi through the tough time of dealing with a very sick baby brother, and make sure his portal opening doesn’t accidentally summon more than he planned. It is a lot, I give you that, but I never felt like it was too much at once. Sure, Hernandez randomly introduces AI into his story at some point, and I’m not sure that was totally necessary but all things considered, I really enjoyed following Sal in his day to day life. He has a loving family who is not without its problems. His parents are lovely, but Sal’s mother died a few years ago and Sal still misses her painfully. Which leads to even more problems but I can’t tell you more about that without spoiling.
Sal and Gabi aren’t on a quest per se, but they have many things going on. Gabi worries about her baby brother who is in intensive care and might not survive. Sal mostly worries about the calamitrons his portal opening has unleashed and whether his latest portal will eventually close. But there’s very little our two protagonists can actively do to help these “quests” along. So I was quite surprised when Carlos Hernandez managed to write an ending to this story that came to a satisfying (and partly hilarious) conclusion. This ended up being a lovely middle grade book that definitely made me want to read the next instalment. The only negative things I could say about it are the overwhelmingly nice characters (but again, if you’re in the right mood, that’s a feature, not a bug) and the fact that the language is not outstanding. The prose flows nicely enough but there wasn’t anything special about it. So. Not really a critique. I’m just nitpicking. 🙂
I will read the next book for sure, but I may just save it up for a time when I’ve had too much grimdark and I’m in the mood for a bunch of wonderful, caring, diverse characters to lift me up.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!