Kwame Mbalia (left), the New York Times bestselling author of the Tristan Strong books (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky; Tristan Strong Destroys the World; and the upcoming Tristan Strong Keeps Punching), has teamed up with Prince Joel Makonnen (right), the great-grandson of Haile Selassie I, the last Ethiopian emperor, to write Last Gate of the Emperor.
The novel, an Afrofuturist adventure novel inspired by the legends and culture of real-life Ethiopia, was lauded by Kirkus as an “enthralling tale of resilience, family, and bravery that will entertain young sci-fi lovers.” It is available now from Scholastic.
Summary of Last Gate of the Emperor
Yared Heywat lives an isolated life in Addis Prime—a hardscrabble space colony with rundown tech, lots of rules, and not much to do. His worrywart Uncle Moti and bionic lioness Besa are his only family… and his only friends.
Often in trouble for his thrill-seeking antics and smart mouth, those same qualities make Yared a star player of the underground augmented reality game The Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk. But when a change in the game rules prompts Yared to log in with his real name, it triggers an attack that rocks the city. In the chaos, Uncle Moti disappears.
Suddenly, all the stories Yared’s uncle told him as a young boy are coming to life, of kingdoms in the sky and city-razing monsters. And somehow Yared is at the center of them.
Together with Besa and the Ibis—a game rival turned reluctant ally—Yared must search for his uncle… and answers to his place in a forgotten, galaxy-spanning war.
Now, CLICK HERE for an exclusive SNEAK PEEK at the book trailer!
Interview with Kwame Mbalia & Prince Joel
MR: Thank you for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files blog, Kwame and Prince Joel. Before we dive in, I’d love to know the origin story behind your collaboration. How did a best-selling children’s author/self-described lover of Dad jokes and Cheezits team up with the great-grandson of Haile Selassie I, the 225th emperor of Ethiopia?
KM: Through a mutual friend! And with both of us sharing a passion for telling stories about the African diaspora, it was easy to forge a connection through the power of those stories.
The Secret of Worldbuilding
MR: Last Gate of the Emperor is a fantastical tale that incorporates real-life Ethiopian places, culture, history, and food. For instance, the Gebeya (marketplace) is airborne with drones that buzz overhead and food vendors sell traditional Ethiopian fare, such as shiro (ground-chickpea stew) and sambusas (a savory pastry filled with ground beef or lentils). What’s the secret to building a world like the one described in your book?
KM: Worldbuilding is like building a car. All cars have a frame to put the body of the car on. But the type of frame can be changed, adapted, painted, dressed up all snazzy, etc. Start from your frame, which for me is the community in my world. Where are my characters eating? Where are they attending school? Where are they hanging out…?
In answering these questions like how do characters get around (the engine/wheels) or what goods/industries are there (can’t have leather seats without cows) you’ll find more questions that will help to build out that world.
Creating a Rich and Textured World
MR: A question for Kwame: Like Last Gate of the Emperor, your Tristan Strong novels (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky and Tristan Strong Destroys the World) weave (West) African—and African-American—folklore into the narrative, creating a rich and textured world. What is it about African and African-American folklore that inspires you as a writer? Also, what kind of research did you do for Last Gate of the Emperor?
KM: In answer to the first question, it’s my culture. For research, there are always books and videos, but I find that nothing is better than actually talking with the people. And having someone like Joel on my team is like having the ultimate video game cheat code (not that Yared would cheat, he’s already the best).
Your Story Is Your Power!
MR: Prince Joel, you spent your childhood in exile, in Europe, and knew little about your royal past. You only learned later that you were a descendant of the Solomonic Dynasty, the oldest monarchy in the world, which ruled Ethiopia for over 3,000 years and traces its lineage back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. How did this discovery affect you personally? Did it give you a greater desire to delve into Ethiopian culture, history, and folklore, as demonstrated in Last Gate of the Emperor?
PJM: It absolutely fascinated me and motivated me to seek out even more information about my home country and my family’s history. A main theme in Last Gate of the Emperor is understanding the true meaning of family bond, and showing that it is everlasting, even if you are physically separated from your family and home because of unforeseen circumstances.
In Last Gate, similar to my experience, our main protagonist Yared is on an adventure, unbeknownst to him, which will take him on a journey of self-discovery. My hope is that young readers will be inspired by Yared and motivated to go on their own journey, seek their true core, and embrace it. Your story is your power! It will always be with you and you can use it to fulfill your dreams and do good in the world.
MR: Now, a question for both of you: What sorts of books did you enjoy as kids? How did these books influence you—as readers, and as novelists?
KM: I read anything and everything. Slowly I began to gravitate to science fiction and fantasy when I looked for other worlds to explore and escape to, while contemporary books by African American authors gave me an anchor to which I could return. Books like the Lord of the Rings and Slam! coalesced in my mind to give me the worldbuilding and the vernacular to create my own worlds.
PJM: As a kid, I enjoyed novels and fables such as The Little Prince, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the Fables of LaFontaine. As a reader, these books gave me a lot of inspiration, exposed me different truths about life at an early age and allowed me to expand my understanding of the world. I learned that there is so much more to life than what is right in front of you, and you can dream up your own world.
Kwame Mbalia’s Writing Process
MR: Kwame, can you tell our Mixed-Up readers a bit about your writing routine?
KM: Personally, I write when I’m allowed to. Quarantining during a pandemic with kids means writing sometimes falls to seventh on the list of priorities. So a paragraph here, a few sentences there, a panicked writing sprint sprinkled in for good measure, and boom, instant book. Okay, maybe not instantly, but you know what I mean.
A Surprise for Prince Joel
MR: Prince Joel, what surprised you most during the writing, research, and worldbuilding of this novel?
PJM: Besa!!! She is Yared’s bionic lioness, and she is everything! There are many other things about Addis Prime that are so cool, including “nefasis,” a special backpack outfitted with thrusters, skysails and, of course, the augmented reality game HKO!
Sequel? A movie…? Enquiring MUF Readers Want to Know
MR: Will there be a sequel to Last Gate of the Emperor? I’m dying to know what happens to Yared in the future. Also, is there a movie deal in the works? This book screams to be made into a film.
KM: We’re working on the sequel! And maybe if everyone screams loud enough at the same time a movie producer will perk up.
And finally, a lightning round!
Preferred writing snack?
PJM: Kinder Bueno, or Reese’s cups
Coffee or tea?
KM: Coffee with Cheezits
PJM: Buna! (Coffee)
Cat, dog or bionic lioness? (Okay, that’s a trick question…)
KM: How dare you! (Don’t listen, Besa.)
PJM: Bionic lioness! (Did I mention Besa?)
KM: Star Wars Rogue One YouTube playlist
PJM: Right now, it’s “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?
KM: Robot apocalypse is more likely
PJM: Yea – I’m ready, zombies, let’s go!
KM: Perfect single swipe peanut butter spread
PJM: Ability to sleep while appearing awake and remaining functional
Favorite place on earth?
KM: Next to my wife
PJM: Paris, France. Specifically, the Le George restaurant at the Four Seasons George V hotel on the Champs-Elysées, eating moules marinieres et frites with some Orangina
You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they?
KM: A pen, a notebook, and a smartphone with suspiciously strong signal strength
PJM: A music player with an infinity battery, a machete, and my gold Ethiopian cross necklace
MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Kwame and Prince Joel—and congratulations on the publication of Last Gate of the Emperor. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know Mixed-Up Files readers will too!
About the Authors
Kwame Mbalia is a husband, father, writer, a New York Times bestselling author, and a former pharmaceutical metrologist in that order. His debut middle-grade novel, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky was awarded a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, and it—along with the sequels Tristan Strong Destroys the World and Tristan Strong Keeps Punching (out October 5)—is published by Rick Riordan Presents/Disney-Hyperion. A Howard University graduate and a Midwesterner now in North Carolina, he survives on Dad jokes and Cheezits. Learn more about Kwame on his website and follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Prince Joel Makonnen is the great-grandson of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia. He is an attorney and the co-founder of Old World/New World, a media and entertainment company focused on telling powerful African stories that inspire global audiences through film, TV and books. He lives with his wife, Ariana, in Los Angeles.
For a chance to win a copy of LAST GATE OF THE EMPEROR, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win!
What a fascinating interview and peak into a fascinating world–real and imagined. This book looks like adventurous fun!
This looks to be perfect for my upper elementary kids – Tristan Strong is very popular and always checked out!
This was SUCH a fun interview–and I’m crazy-psyched to know that Prince Joel and I both want to have the same superpower.
Thank you for the fun interview. I enjoyed the world-building tips. I can’t wait to read this book and have it on my Goodreads.
Thanks for commenting, Kayla. And on Twitter, too! 🙂
What an amazing interview!
Glad you enjoyed it, Elisa!
Such cool concepts! Would love a copy for my students 🙂