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.
Rating: 5/5 Stars
If you’re searching for a book that’s about the connections we make, character growth, meaning of family and friendship, all while giving you a novel and thorough world full of creative sci-fi, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez is the one for you.
We follow Sal Vidón, a precocious young teen who, on his third day at the Culeco Academy of Arts, finds himself at the principal’s office after a bullying incident. Said incident involves a dead chicken, which Sal had magically placed inside the bully’s locker. It’s in the principal’s office where Sal meets Gabi Reál, another precocious kid who’s intent on exposing Sal and saving the bully from drastic repercussions.
After realizing that his magic could result in a kid being kicked out (and that Gabi is a an expert cross-examiner), Sal has a change of heart and says his magic was an illusion: there was no chicken. Sal knows what to do in order to survive, even if it means lying and conjuring things from a different dimension to get his way; he’s had to learn how to do so especially in light of his traumatic childhood.
Sal is a frank boy in that he’s honest about his mental health (he has PTSD after a traumatic car accident and the death of his mother) as well as his own physical disability (he’s a Type I diabetic). Even though magic is all about misdirection, Sal never uses it dishonestly. In fact, he’s truthful when he says that he learned magic in order to cope with his traumas. He finds a way to scurry away from trouble thanks to this coping mechanism, but tends to create more trouble than he solves, as evidenced by his unusual ability to borrow things from alternate universes.
Throughout the book, Sal starts to rely less on his magic, and more on his friends and family in order to solve his problems. Even so, his magic is explained away with science, all while not hitting you over the head with it; this ex-physicist found it logical, not a complete head-scratch anyway.
Sal evolves especially as his friendship with Gabi grows. He becomes more empathetic when he’s in touch with his feelings and emotions, such as when he reacts badly to an exposé gabi writes without realizing how it could hurt him. He recovers immediately and sincerely apologizes to Gabi. Their relationship is one that’s based in the earnestness of friendship, in wanting someone to look at your unique qualities and not think they are strange; it’s refreshing to see such a take on friendships. Even when they are being teased by their peers and close ones, Sal and Gabi maintain a respectful relationship full of curiosity and lightness (and yes, even fart jokes). When Gabi asks “Am I that extra?” at the sight of an alternate version of herself, Sal keeps quiet to not hurt her feelings, yet allows the reader to reach their own conclusion (yes, you are but no, never change, Gabi Reál).
Gabi is one of the most Lawful Good characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about, while still never betraying her intuition or impulses, even if it comes at a cost. Though Sal and Gabi are both impulsive, they’re a balanced duo in that they take turns being the stabilizing force until they’re convinced otherwise (they take turns sharing one brain cell).
Even so, another part that makes this book such a strong one is its ensemble cast of supporting characters. From the bully (whose name is Yasmany, and he’s a dancer with a troubled past) I mentioned earlier to a stern but fun principal, from Sal’s small but loving family to Gabi’s Mom and multiple “dads,” they all have important parts to play in Sal and Gabi’s lives. They allow the duo to grow and to have fun, all while being fully fleshed-out characters.
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe’s main questions are: What does family mean in the face of horrible events? How do these people around me and these sequences shape who I am?
They’re heavy questions to tackle, and when one thinks about the books that pose questions like these you’d think they’re more easily answered in a Contemporary book. But Hernandez manages to choreograph an intricate dance between the heavy and the light using grounded Science Fiction that deserves a standing ovation. The reader is immersed into a world full of Cubans in Miami, questioning gendered expectations and misogyny, all while having funny lines like: “You just give feero zucks what people think about you, don’t you?” (bless you, Yasmany)
I’m very much looking forward to more discussions about alternate universes, bonding moments, fart jokes, and Gabi Reál in iconic quote-t-shirts in the sequel.
CWs (the ones I can remember): death of parent, PTSD, car accident (described in detail), trauma, bullying (resolved and challenged on page), abuse (character is implied comes from abusive household), blood, hospitals, discussions of death, dissociation.
An eARC was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!