Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsSal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsSal Vidon has just started at a new middle school and he’s already been to the principal’s office three times. That’s because Sal is a magician, or so he says, and, indeed, very strange things happen around him. For example, he made a dead chicken suddenly appear in a bully’s locker, and he made his dead mother appear in his kitchen to cook up a feast of Cuban food one day before his father and stepmom got home from work.

Soon Sal attracts the attention of school council president Gabi Real, a smart industrious middle-schooler who notices Sal’s special skills and sets out to discover his secret. Eventually Sal explains: he can create holes in space-time and retrieve objects or people from parallel universes. There’s a price, though. As Sal’s physicist father explains, each time Sal brings something from another universe, some calamatrons come with it, and the build-up of these chaos particles will eventually destroy our universe. When the rift in the bully’s locker is slow to close, releasing a bunch of calamatrons, Sal and Gabi must work together to solve the problem.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe (2019) is a finalist for this year’s Nebula (Andre Norton) Award, which is how it caught my attention. It’s a delightfully entertaining story full of charming characters and a fun, kooky plot. Sal and Gabi are clever, witty, and good-hearted. Sal likes Gabi because she acts as the bully’s lawyer when he appeared before the principal, and she built a lie detector that works. Gabi likes Sal because he used “whom” correctly in a sentence, and she’s intrigued by his magic. All of the adults — parents, step-parents, teachers, school staff — are benevolent and supportive. Even the bully is really a good kid who just needs to be steered in the right direction. (Some readers are going to find all of this goodness to be a bit syrupy.)

Almost all of the characters are of Cuban descent, which is one of the things I found so refreshing and appealing about this story. Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is steeped in Cuban culture and filled with Cuban food (my favorite cuisine).

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is amusing, with lots of comedic elements that will appeal to all ages, as well as a few of the fart- and wedgie-jokes that are requisite for a middle-grade novel. Though the story relies on the science fiction idea of parallel universes, it’s actually a small part of the plot. Author Carlos Hernandez seems most interested in telling a warm-hearted Cuban-inspired tale.

Though Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is mostly funny and light, Hernandez takes the opportunity to present some tough subjects to his middle-grade audience. Sal has diabetes, so his physical limitations (and lack thereof) are part of his experience and young readers will probably learn a lot about that medical condition. Sal and his father still grieve for Sal’s mother, even as they try to move on with a new wife and mother who they also love. Gabi’s baby brother is very ill in the NICU and her family spends a lot of time gathered in the hospital’s waiting room (eating Cuban food). These weighty topics give the book some welcome gravitas and Hernandez handles them with deftness and sensitivity.

The audio version of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe was produced by Listening Library and read by the fabulous Anthony Rey Perez. I loved his performance. A sequel, called Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, will be released next month. I am likely to pick it up.

Published in 2019. Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents a brilliant sci-fi romp with Cuban influence that poses this question: What would you do if you had the power to reach through time and space and retrieve anything you want, including your mother, who is no longer living (in this universe, anyway)? 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.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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