BWW Review: SLAY by Brittney Morris
"Kings and queens, you know the drill. We are here first and foremost to celebrate black excellence in all its forms, from all parts of the globe. We are different ages, genders, tribes, tongues, and traditions. But tonight, we are all black. And tonight, we all SLAY.
The concept for brand-new debut novel SLAY by Brittney Morris was intriguing from the very beginning: it was pitched as "THE HATE U GIVE" meets "WARCROSS," which is a fascinating concept to begin with. It may be doing SLAY a disservice, however, to directly comp to WARCROSS. Don't go into this one expecting a futuristic, high tech sci-fi thriller. You'll be disappointed. SLAY is very contemporary, and it actually has more of an ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS (by Francesca Zappia) feel to it. People may see the comps and go in expecting this book to be something it isn't and not love it for what it is.Sometimes when books are comped to something huge, people go in with wild expectations and, as a result, really dislike the book because the comp did it a disservice. But comps, in the end, are more about the heart of the story, rather than its outward furnishings, and the same is true here.
Kiera Johnson is outwardly a normal teenager. She goes to school, is on the Honor Roll, has great friends and a swoon-worthy boyfriend. She's also one of only a handful of black students at her school, and often feels stifled to truly be herself. She created an online MMORPG game called Slay for players like herself, who no longer have to reign in their vernacular or thoughts and can exist in a safe space. She creates playing cards that embrace black heritage and showcase its beauty. In the book, she states,
"Five hundred fifty-five of the students at Jefferson are white, leaving just twenty-five students of color estranged and unfamiliar with each other. Most are Indian and East Asian, a handful are Latinx, two are Filipino, and one is Sioux. Only four of us are black--Me, Steph, Malcolm, and the new member of Beta Beta, Jazmin. When your demographic makes up such a tiny slice of the pie, it feels weird to reach out to the only students who look like you. It makes you look desperate. It makes you look shallow. It makes you wish you could retreat into a world where just once you don't feel like an outsider. It's why I created SLAY. I may have to deal with Jefferson all day, but when I come home, I get to pretend I'm not in the minority, that my super-curly hair isn't 'weird' or 'funky' or 'new and different.' White kids read so many books and watch so many movies about white teenagers 'just wanting to be normal.' How do they think I feel?"
Once she's home and safely hidden away in her bedroom, Kiera turns on Slay and becomes Emerald. Right now, the game is in the middle of its semi-finals, which have to be postponed when one of the players doesn't show up. It soon becomes clear that the player was, in fact, murdered in real-life by another Slay player over in-game money. Kiera's world turns upside-down as Slay makes national headlines and the media starts calling the game "violent" and "racist." Nobody knows that Kiera created the game, so she she has no one to turn to and is freaking out. Could someone really sue her? Is she responsible for the fact that one of the players was murdered? And why is the media twisting Slay to be something it's not and casting it in a vicious light?
SLAY is a great title for this novel and has multiple meanings: First, it is the name of the popular underground online game that teenager Kiera Johnson created. Two, it gives players a chance to slay while playing. But a darker, third meaning casts the game into a darker light when a player is murdered and the game's obscurity is shattered as it makes national news, with reporters saying its name showcases the game's violent nature.
There is so much going on in Slay and it is very much a contemporary story with fun splashes of in-game scenarios. On top of gaming, Keira also worries about getting into college and whether or not she's making the right choice or the expected choice, as well as about fitting in and what her friends and family think of her, going as far as hiding the fact that she not only plays, but invented Slay from everyone. It also deals with today's culture of online bullying and the way the harassment bleeds over into real life, especially affecting today's youth.
SLAY is full of so much pride and love for black culture and of raising its kings and queens up to be their very best selves. There is so much glory and love in these pages, and it spills over so that anyone can appreciate it, no matter their background.
The book is mostly through Keira's perspective, but every once in a while, readers are granted a glimpse from the viewpoint of various Slay players that serve to flesh out the media attention surrounding Slay in ways that Keira can't analyze. They manage not to hinder the story, and only enhance the scope of what's going on. I really like the way we get these little asides, and almost wish there were more of them, or repeats from the various voices being featured. One of my favorite books is Jodi Picoult's KEEPING FAITH, in large part due to the fact that what is going on with Faith is micro-analyzed by so many different outside perspectives, all serving to give the reader a more spherical look at the situation and ability to question the truth from multiple angles. I like that SLAY has hints of this as well, prodding at a situation too frequently seen in the media such as whether or not video games incite violent tendencies and hot-button issues on racism and white supremacy. I really liked seeing the events through various eyes or hearing discourse between Keira and her friends and family because it heightened thoughts and turned SLAY into more of a talking piece. This would be a fantastic book to include in high school curriculums for class discussion or to have at book club.
The book is also a nod to girl gamers. We exist, too. We even develop games! Gaming isn't just a man's world, and it's so nice to see a book that embraces this aspect and gives female gamers a voice and a goal, rather than serving as secondary characters or traditional male fantasy stereotypes. Whether or not Slay could actually function or come into existence the way it does in the story is another topic, and one that, if you think about it too hard, may pull you from the story. Throw the logistics of how Keira could afford to build such a large free-to-play game or have the time to make it so cohesive or only have two Mods or various other little inconsistencies aside and just take the game at face value and it's brilliant. I think having read WARCROSS, I threw a lot of that gaming atmosphere into my visualization as I read, which made it feel more palpable to be something that could actually happen, especially the way other players stop gaming and instead attend these huge semi-final tournaments from the stands. In reality, this gaming world probably couldn't exist as is, at least, not yet. It's a game that would be fantastic if it were real, however, and if you're a gamer, Simon and Schuster made a fun web version of the game that you can play with friends on social media (notably Twitter, in particular) by visiting the Slay website! How cool is that!?