Slay by Brittney Morris

The Blurb On The Back:

We are different ages, genders and traditions … but tonight we all SLAY

By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is a college student, and one of the only black kids at Jefferson Academy.  By night, she joins hundreds of thousands of black gamers who duel worldwide in the secret online VR game, SLAY.

No one knows Kiera is the game developer – not even her boyfriend, Malcolm.  But when a teenager is murdered of a dispute in the SLAY world, the media labels it an exclusion isn’t, racist hub for thugs.

With threats coming from both inside and outside the game, Kiera must fight to save the safe space she’s created.  But can she protect SLAY without losing herself?

You can order Slay by Brittney Morris from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s the near future.  17-year-old Kiera Johnson lives in Seattle with her parents and her younger sister, Steph.  Kiera and Steph transferred to Jefferson Academy from Belmont, where they and Kiera’s boyfriend, Malcolm, where the majority of the student population were people of colour.  At Jefferson Academy, all three are part of a very visible Black American minority and Kiera is tired of being constantly asked to determine on all African American related for her white classmates, including her best friend, Harper (whose dad owns the company her dad works for).  

Kiera and Malcolm have made their plans for college – they’re going to Atlanta, Georgia where Malcolm will attend Morehouse (a college that existed before the US Civil Rights Act specifically to educate African Americans) and Kiera is waiting to find out if she’s got into Spelman.  But sometimes Kiera dislikes Malcolm’s hardline views on what it means to be a black American – to the extent that she knows he’d be annoyed and disappointed if she didn’t get into Spelman and had to go to Emory instead – and he’s unwilling to accept anything that doesn’t conform to his views.

It’s because Malcolm doesn’t approve of video games (he sees them as another way of white people exercising control over Black Americans) that Kiera hasn’t told him of her double life.  In her spare time she created and helps to run SLAY, a popular MMORPG that is specifically designed for, and only accessible by black people.  The game has become an underground success, accessible by more than 500,000 players around the globe such that Kiera’s had to apply most of the money she makes from tutoring to meeting the costs of keeping it going and has a co-moderator Cicada to help her develop it and manage the in-game play.

But the on-line and real worlds collide when one of SLAY’s players is killed over a dispute over the in-game currency.  Suddenly the full glare of the media is on Kiera’s creation and as accusations fly that the game’s racist against white people, everyone wants to know who’s responsible for it but when a white supremacist infiltrates the game, Kiera’s problems are about to get a lot worse …

Brittney Morris’s debut YA polemic is a mixed bag that’s strong on racial politics, micro aggressions and political pressures within the African American community and it’s great to read a celebration of black American culture.  However, the plot is filled with improbabilities and inconsistencies and the focus on the Black American experience comes at the expense of global black experience while toxic masculinity gets a disturbing pass.

It’s always difficult to review a polemic because usually the focus on the ideas comes at the expense of plot and character.  For me, Morris’s book falls into the same trap.  That’s not to say that I disagree with the ideas – she makes a valid point about the frankly vile racism that people of colour get subjected to in popular MMORPGs so Kiera’s idea of creating a specific space where black people can come and play and celebrate black culture in a safe and non-judgmental way made sense to me.  

The problem is that the central idea of a game that only black people know about and control the invitation codes really didn’t work for me because it’s just too unbelievable that no one outside that community would ever find out about it, and this leads me to my main criticism of Kiera in that for someone we are repeatedly told and shown as being smart and hard working, she is ridiculously naive about how the internet works to the point that I started to not believe in her.  I also struggled to see how she could build the game on what appeared to be limited resources – for something that size and given that it’s a VR game as well I would have expected there to be considerable server costs, constant maintenance issues and moderation issues given we’re told there are over 500,000 players worldwide. Finally, I have to say that I find books that describe computer games to be a little dull and this was no exception, especially as the game seems to rely on a card based battle system, which would probably work better visually than in text form. 

That said, I did like the way the game celebrates black culture and Morris does a great job of incorporating celebrities, sportsmen and cultural figures both into the game and through Malcolm’s interest in black history and culture.  However, it is noticeable how with one exception at the end of the book, all the references in the book are to African American culture, which seems oddly colonial for a game aimed at the diaspora and particularly disappointing given that Cicada is French, a country where the black community has a rich culture and history.  However, I did like the small chapters that show other people playing the game and what they get out of it and although I wish that more had been made about the in game currency elements and the violent behaviour it can lead to.

In addition to having concerns about Kiara’s naivety about the internet, for a smart girl she doesn’t bother doing any research on lawyers and it did annoy me that given she’s fearing being sued over SLAY being discriminatory, she doesn’t go to a lawyer who specialises in that area but instead just picks someone she’s seen on TV.  This is a particular shame given that Morris is so good at skewering the racist double standards that certain TV news shows display when it comes to covering African American issues.  I also thought that Morris does a good job of showing the different discussions that take place within the African American community in terms of issues and clash points – most notably in conversations between Kiara, Steph and their parents on ebonics and more heavy handedly in the conversations between Kiara and Harper.

The most problematic element of the book though is in the relationship between Kiara and Malcolm because right from the off he gave me toxic boyfriend vibes – controlling, patronising and arrogant I really didn’t like the interactions, mainly because Kiara doesn’t see anything wrong with them.  I got that this was intentional on Morris’s part (and it does help that Steph is shown as strongly disliking Malcolm because of the way he behaves around her sister) but the suggestion is that Kiara thinks that this is due to Malcolm’s commitment to black culture and I found that quite frightening because there did not seem to me, to be anything specifically African American about his reasons for trying to control her – it came across as standard toxic male behaviour so the association was a little icky for me (but I appreciate that I may be completely misunderstanding this).

SLAY was released in the United Kingdom on 3rd October 2019.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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