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?
What is SLAY about?
This book is about, ultimately, the necessity for young Black folks to form communities that uplift and celebrate them. The story focuses on Kiera, a young Black high schooler whose school is predominantly white. Since she feels like an outsider by day, she created an online gaming community for Black folks worldwide to feel comfortable in. Despite the brilliance and intelligence she demonstrated by creating this game, she hides her identity from the world out of fear that others–including other Black people in her life–won’t understand why she made the game in the first place. And then, a Black teenage boy is killed in an argument over Kiera’s game. It all unravels from there.
Genre: YA Contemporary
This book has some theoretically sci-fi aspects in the descriptions of the game, but it is firmly rooted in plausible reality.
Tropes: The Ultimate Betrayal
The twist villain was pretty well written! I genuinely believed the red herring up until a point just before the twist was revealed–so by the time the main character catches up I was starting to think “jeeze, get on the same page!”–but it was a smart twist all things considered.
Plot: Video Games Don’t Make People Violent
I thought this was an interesting underlying plot beat. Of course, the most important aspects of the plot have to do with misogynoir and the intersection of womenhood with being Black. The underlying plot about video games was interesting specifically because it takes into account intersectionality.
The way this book tackles racism and intersectionality is absolutely its strongest point. I thought it was smart to incorporate a few different perspectives and I enjoyed seeing how those perspectives collided with Kiera in the end. This book definitely has a lot to say about community and connections to those who can understand you–specifically the experiences of Black teenagers who rely on other Black people to help them navigate life experiences. I did really enjoy the reveal of the “villain” in SLAY, as well as the way things resolved in the end.
There was a lot more telling than showing when it came to some of the beginning conflicts. Kiera tells the readers that her family and friends wouldn’t understand the world of SLAY, nor would they support her for creating it. She’s just biding her time until she goes to college but she also doesn’t appear to believe things will change then, either. Despite evidence both during and after the revelations about SLAY and Kiera’s involvement, she really has no faith in her family or friends’ support. If this were a character flaw that Kiera definitely overcomes, this would have made total sense. But there’s no real internal “ah, I was wrong for this,” moment and no consequences in her emotions or relationships.
There was something missing, and I’m not quite sure what. All the characters seemed to take a sudden leap in a direction that didn’t fully make sense at the time. For about 80% of the novel, Kiera tells us things are X and then all of a sudden things are Y and she isn’t even sure how that happened. I enjoyed the ending and I mostly enjoyed the build up to get there, I just felt like there was a step missing between the two that really jarred me and took me out of the story.
Ultimately, I feel this is a good story–just not a great one. The characters are well motivated, and just shy of fully developed. The relationships are compelling, the story fast-paced enough to really keep your attention. Kiera’s creation, SLAY, is as immersive on the page as I’m sure it would be to play it. For most of the book, the world of the game and Kiera’s struggles carry the plot and the characters. But there’s just a bit of development that’s missing. Kiera never quite overcomes anything outside of playing SLAY–things conveniently work out. There’s no reckoning over the issues Kiera had with the majority of the cast. Things are wrapped up for a single relationship of hers, but so much of the novel is driven by all of her relationships that it feels a little flat for what ultimately is the least important relationship to have the most finished story.