Slay by Brittney Morris
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction
Maturity Level: 4-
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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 realize that as a white 30-year-old woman this book was not really written for me. I also realize that my opinion maybe doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) matter. But I’m in the habit of writing reviews for nearly every book I read, so here I go.
This is a really great story and message that got bogged down in race-dialogue.
Let me clarify that when I say race dialogue, I mean literal dialogue. I would estimate that more than half the book was spent with characters talking to one another about race, either in-person or via text. Another at least quarter of the book was spent with the main character telling the reader about race. I think the things that were said are important, and matter, and I don’t want to belittle them at all. BUT. I think other books have done a better job at showing instead of telling. The story was so interesting, and I wanted more of that, because the story is what made this book unique.
So the idea is that the main character, Kiera, created an online video game for black people worldwide, and the game took off. But for some reason she feels the need to keep this secret from everyone. (Didn’t really understand that, was sort of mulligan-y…) Possibly because she thinks no one in her life will understand. The result is that she’s living this sort of double-life. The “real” Kiera is doing her best to juggle school, a boyfriend, college applications, and not being “too” black. The online Kiera is a literal Queen.
The game she created was so interesting! It was a combo VR-fighter with a card game. I really wanted to learn more and definitely wanted to play! I wish the game was real, because it sounds like something I would really enjoy. To weigh in on the debate in the book, is the game racist, I admit that I would personally be very disappointed to be excluded, because I think it sounds like so much fun. But I also understand why the black community would enjoy a space where they wouldn’t have to explain “That one Auntie’s potato salad” to the white girl. (Though she had no problem explaining it to the non-American black girl, which I found a little frustrating. Why is it annoying when white people make a genuine attempt to understand your culture better, but no big deal when a French black person does? Not complaining, genuinely asking, in case anyone has an answer.)
I liked Kiera, I guess, but unfortunately she didn’t have much in the way of a personality. We don’t really get to know her that well. Is she shy or outgoing? Does she prefer glamour or natural? Is she more serious or does she prefer jokes? Her biggest character trait was that she liked to eat. Again, I think Morris spent so much time discussing race that she didn’t have enough opportunity to bring Kiera’s personality out. Which is really too bad, because the side characters were AMAZING, and Morris is obviously talented at characterization. I LOVED Kiera’s sister, though she’s a bit of a Manic Pixie.
The biggest reason I didn’t like the book was that I couldn’t stand Kiera’s boyfriend. No spoilers, but by the end of the book you’re not supposed to. But I didn’t like him at any point. His hyper-masculinity was really off-putting, and it bothered me the way it didn’t seem to bother anyone. I think seeing this kind of relationship in a book, especially since it ends up getting red-flagged, could be really important for young girls. BUT, I don’t think enough warning signs were pointed out as we went, which made me feel super cringy the entire time I was reading.
I appreciated that Morris was able to explore Kiera’s sexuality without writing anything explicit. I think that was really well done for a YA book, and I want to commend her for it. You’re able to feel the sexual tension between Kiera and Malcolm, but at no point is kissing or sex actually described. It was a refreshing change of pace, to have a book with romance in it that was not romantic, if that makes sense.
One more disclaimer. Based on the synopsis I thought this was going to be science fiction. Maybe like Ready Player One. It was not. Mostly realistic video game tech, no futurism. Just a heads up.
Again, I want to emphasize that all the race points in this book were made well. I feel like I learned a lot. Morris is well-written and clear, and I hope that I’m a better person than I was last week. I just didn’t feel that it was balanced well enough with the story.
If you liked The Hate U Give and are in to video games, this is a must-read. If you don’t like John Green’s books, I think there’s a good chance you won’t care for this one either.