Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Review: Slay by Brittney Morris

Title: Slay
Author: Brittney Morris
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BYR
Release date: September 24th 2019
Pages: 323
Genre: Young Adult contemporary/sci-fi(?)
Source: Purchased audiobook through Audible
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By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer, not her friends, her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are partially responsible for the "downfall of the Black man." But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to sue Kiera for "anti-white discrimination." Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?

I LOVED listening to Slay; it's a super fun and unique story with a strong voice and fantastic characters that tackles difficult conversations within an entertaining story!

The characters are what make this novel so great. I loved Kiera; she has a strong voice and a unique but relatable personality. I loved reading about her dynamics with her friends at her predominantly-white school who put her in uncomfortable situations with their ignorance and problematic questions, with her parents, whose respectability politics have kept Kiera from confiding in them about Slay, with her moderator Cicada who later opens up and becomes her friend, her sister Steph, who was probably my favorite character, and her boyfriend Malcolm, whose storyline was very different than I'd expected, in a good way. 

Slay does a fantastic job of addressing social issues and systemic racism without being an "issue book." The racism Kiera has experienced in other video games and the backlash Slay receives are integral to the story, and anti-racist politics are at the heart of the novel, without Slay becoming a book "about" racism. The conversations differences between all of the Black characters demonstrate the complexities of anti-racist politics in a very accessible way.  I also loved the discussion of intersections of anti-racist and feminist politics, especially through the conflicts between Steph and Malcolm. More so than being about racism and anti-Blackness, this novel is grounded in Black culture and celebrates Blackness. This novel would be great to recommend to anyone who might be interested in learning about these issues but doesn't want to read an "issue" book, or even anyone who is simply interested in the video game element and general story but who will also learn something along the way, or of course anyone who is interested in video games, etc. and doesn't fit into the white male geek demographic.

Even though I personally am not a video game person, I loved reading about Slay. I honestly don't know how realistic the game is--I don't know much about game developing, and it seems like the author does, so maybe I am just ignorant of this, but I was under the impression that developing an online game with hundreds of thousands of players would require time and money that a high school student wouldn't have. I've seen others categorize this novel as sci-fi (and some of the technology does seem a little futuristic), so maybe if you read this novel as taking place in the future, that wouldn't be the case anymore, but I just assumed it was a contemporary while reading. Regardless of the logistics, however, reading about Kiera and other characters playing this game was super fun, and especially seeing the different cards that are all grounded in Black culture and celebrating Blackness is so important.

Asides from the creation of this video game, though, there were a few more elements that I just didn't find realistic or had some questions on and that needed more explanation. It felt a bit too convenient that, despite this game being played by Black people all over the world, the important players end up being people important in Kiera's life. Additionally, I was surprised that, when the media discusses whether Slay is "racist" for creating a space exclusively for Black people and excluding non-Black players, a professor of African American Studies agreed that excluding white players is "racist against white people." Maybe I am just biased towards Ethnic Studies scholars, but I can't imagine any African American Studies professor agreeing that racism against white people exists rather than explaining that racism is systemic and that reverse racism does not exist. Of course, we didn't get to know this character very well, so maybe he had a reason not to speak up in this way, but these are just a few points that made me pause and that didn't seem entirely realistic or fully explained.

I loved listening to Slay as an audiobook. I am not an audiobook person, but I've recently given audiobooks another try in order to have something to listen to while going on walks during quarantine; Slay is actually the first audiobook that I've listened to from start to finish since going on road trips with my parents as a child... I loved the narrator who read Kiera's chapters, and the format of having short interspersed chapters about other characters, read by different narrators, worked really well in the audiobook format. This book convinced me to give audiobooks another shot!

I highly recommend Slay to anyone looking for a unique, fun story that celebrates Blackness and addresses a number of important issues! I'm excited to read Brittney Morris's second novel, The Cost of Knowing, which, since I was so late to this party, already comes out next month!


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