There are so many freaking reasons why I picked up this book: the cover (gorgeous), the title (so good), the description (so unique and, though I’m not personally a gamer, it sounded fascinating), and very importantly, Black women in STEM (phenomenally necessary YA rep). Anyways, not to give too big of a spoiler for the actual review, but all my intuition about this one was spot on, and it was AMAZING!
“…there’s an understanding that ‘your Black is not my Black’ and ‘your weird is not my weird’ and ‘your beautiful is not my beautiful,’ and that’s okay.”
Kiera Johnson is, as far as everyone knows, a typical smart young Black girl attending a predominately white high school outside Seattle. What no one knows though, is that she’s also, secretly the co-developer of the online VR role-playing card game SLAY – where Black gamers worldwide congregate to play together and celebrate Black culture and greatness in a virtual safe space. However, Kiera’s life is thrown into upheaval when the game spills into the real world, a young Black boy is murdered, and a spotlight is thrown on SLAY. Dealing with potential lawsuits in the real world and infiltration (and worse) by an anonymous online troll in SLAY, Kiera has to decide who to trust and how to own her personal definition of Black Greatness.
So, I spoiled it already, I know, but OMG this book was SO GOOD! I know very little about gaming, of any kind (unless you count Harry Potter board games), so that entire aspect of the book was new to me. And I enjoyed learning about that world and how it works. I also appreciated the insight into how the under-representation and discrimination of real life plays out in that sphere. It doesn’t come as a surprise (which is sad enough on its own), but I am glad that I have a better understanding of it now. To build on that slightly, Morris does a fantastic job illustrating in a clear, objective, and impossible to argue with way (not that you should want or try to argue it, but one of the main points of the book is that many people do), the reality of living as a minority, specifically a Black girl/woman – what you get asked, what’s expected of you, how you must (or must not) act, who you’re presumed to speak for/represent, and all the myriad other little day-to-day ways in which it cumulatively adds up to being overwhelming and impossible. I’ve read a number of nonfiction books recently that delve into the Black experience in America in detailed philosophical ways (Sister Outsider, when they call you a terrorist, and Eloquent Rage, to name a few), which have been enlightening and important for my personal growth in understanding and empathy, and Morris takes many of the greater points made in those collections and distills them down into more digestible (probably not the right word choice, but I’m struggling to find a better one right now) pieces. She gives that information to the reader in different ways from a variety of different characters, mainly Kiera and her sister, though there are other voices as well, in a presentation method that shows how they are lived/experienced in real life, by real people. It’s done spot on for a YA book and really many adults could benefit from reading the way Morris writes it here, with clarity and candidness. In this same vein, sort of, one of my favorite little “extras” included in this novel are the chapters sprinkled throughout that demonstrate the ways that SLAY, it’s existence alone, and the safe space it creates, is so important – the breadth and variety of the gamers whose interactions with SLAY are highlighted shows so clearly how necessary and important these types of safe spaces are for the lives and mental health of, in this case, Black people worldwide.
As far as the plot itself, it really was as interesting and unique as I had been hoping for. The entire premise is unlike anything I had ever read before and it unfolded with fantastic pacing and edge-of-your-seat tension (like seriously, I had major anticipation anxiety, in the best way, throughout most of the novel). I felt all of Kiera’s guilt and sorrow for the death of her fellow SLAY-er, all her fear when her creation might be tainted or taken away from her, and all her pride and excitement when the SLAY community rallied around her/shared their stories of how important SLAY was to them. Honestly, it was a roller coaster of emotions and I loved every page of it. There was one plot point, as part of the big internet troll denouement moment, that felt just a little too convenient/coincidental. But it was key in helping Kiera learn to fully own herself, and in her relationship with her sister, so as far as overall message, it’s fine. Just a little too easy plot-wise.
Anyways, I also have to say that the sense of self-empowerment that Kiera feels at the end, and Morris’ message about how being a strong Black woman looks different for everyone and you have to find and own your own definition, was spectacular and uplifting. There are so many people telling Kiera how to act, or how not to act, all throughout the novel, and when she finally decides to take the parts from each of them that work for her, and create something all her own – I literally could not love it more. And then, the way those closest to her, the family and friends that truly/actually support her, accept her completely for that…well, that’s almost an even more important message, about surrounding yourself with the right people (and how to be that right person for someone else). I don’t know how many more times/ways I can say it, but this book was utterly brilliant!
Some small side note things that I noticed while reading and are adorable enough that I cannot not mention them. First, the cover art looks exactly like what I would guess the author herself looked like in high school (if her author photo on the back flap is anything to go by) and that has got my heart near to bursting. Also, every chapter title has the word “game” in it – what a fun, cute bonus.
I know this book wasn’t written for me (I’m neither Black nor a woman in STEM), so take my thoughts and review with the appropriate grain(s) of salt and in the “personal reactions” spirit in which they were written. But I do have to say, for the record, that it not being written for me doesn’t stop it from being really important for me to have read it. And it absolutely didn’t stop me from learning and being entertained AF from start to finish. What a phenomenal debut, to be able to teach and divert and celebrate Blackness in equal measure. Just INCREDIBLE!
Some quotes/passages that stood out to me:
“Who doesn’t want to have a world at their fingertips – where you can do whatever you want within the limits of the game, where your actions have no consequences, and where you can hide behind a keyboard without being held accountable for what you say and do? Everyone wants that freedom.”
“…made me realize another threat to my people, one that’s less obvious, on that creeps in slowly like a disease. The threat of self-hatred. The idea that Black people who don’t live up to whatever standards society has are somehow less deserving of love and support. […] Fuck respectability politics.”