Sunday, September 15, 2019

SLAY by Brittney Morris

SLAY, on the surface, is everything I want to read about in a book. STEM heroine, science-fictiony elements, video games, diverse rep, real world issues, and political/feminist dialogues. Below the surface, however, are several Issue Sharks™ swimming and circling and waiting for me to dive down below and check it out so they can chew up my expectations to ribbons. 

Did my expectations become sad, tattered ribbons of disappointment? No. But they definitely got gnawed on a little.

Kiera is seventeen years old and one of the few black kids at her prestigious school. She has a black boyfriend, and a supportive family and sister, but most of her friends are white, and a lot of people at her school treat her like she's the Official Ambassador of Black People™, much to her annoyance. The only place that she really feels like she can be herself is an online virtual reality MMORPG called SLAY-- which she built and coded herself.

SLAY is to video games what Black Panther was for superhero movies; it's the READY PLAYER ONE for black cultural references, and rather than taking an exclusively Western view, Kiera tries to be inclusive to the entire African diaspora in her game. The premise is pretty simple: it's a card-based dueling game where characters can build decks and use cards that give them special superpowers, kind of like Yu-Gi-Oh!. Only instead of monsters, the cards have things like Black Jesus or That One Auntie's Potato Salad written on them.

Membership is invite-only and exclusive to black people, because Kiera wants it to stay a safe space. It's completely underground and everything seems golden-- until someone IRL is killed over a game dispute, and suddenly SLAY is splashed over news headlines as the latest example of gang violence. Worse, (white) people who aren't in the game start to say that its very existence is discriminatory if they don't get to play, and people begin to talk about whether or not the creator can be sued. One of these in particular manages to get access to the game and trolls Kiera and other members ruthlessly, baiting them to come out and do something about it. And Kiera intends to do exactly that.

So, as I said before, I have a lot of thoughts. I get why this book is a Big Deal™, and honestly, the things I liked most about it were the things I liked about READY PLAYER ONE: pop cultural references and wish fulfillment fantasy. SLAY actually has a one-up on READY PLAYER ONE in that it doesn't cater exclusively to the white and male geek niche; this version is much more diverse and female-friendly, and I really appreciated that. I also liked how many dialogues there were about ethnicity, culture, and safe spaces. Even if I didn't agree with all of them, I loved that it was happening, that there were some really smart and meaningful passages in here that everyone should read (especially teens) about discrimination and bias, and honestly, it's a great learning opportunity.

The dialogues in this book were probably my favorite thing about SLAY.

The things I liked less about the book was the nebulous execution of VR and gameplay. Does this take place in the future? The technology that Kiera is using seems much beyond what we're capable of doing today, and the idea that someone invented all of this-- as a teenager-- without making any sort of splash until a murder happens seems a bit ridiculous. Likewise, it seems like a lot of the players just sit around watching other characters play instead of playing themselves and, like, that's not really what you do when you MMORPG. A lot of MMORPGs do have moments of slow play, called grinding, where you have to do repetitive tasks to build up stats, or you might have to wait in a turn-based game for everything else to go through before you make your move. It's deferral of gratification and it sucks. Games are boring if you're not playing. Anyone who has a sibling knows how much it stinks to have to wait around and watch someone play while you wait for your turn.

I also thought the exclusivity element was iffy. I fully get the need for safe spaces and places where people can shape and form their identifies in a way that is validating. But I also don't think banning people of certain ethnic groups from these spaces is a good thing or should be celebrated, and it bothered me that the people saying this in the book were being branded as the bad guys. Doing this doesn't just keep out the racists; it also alienates allies, and also other people of color who might not identify as black, or who do identify as biracial. There's this really sad passage in here where one of Kiera's friends actually asks her if she isn't allowed to play because she's half-white, and I think the fact that Kiera's game membership fostered that kind of attitude speaks to the toxicity of that kind of exclusionary environment. It wasn't really fully addressed either, Kiera feels bad, blows off talking to her friend about it, and then basically goes, no it's totally okay you can play my game. But that doesn't address the issue, and it essentially makes Kiera the gatekeeper to black identity in this world.

One thing I do want to praise this book for doing, however, is calling out racism within the community of people of color, as well as the effects of harmful rhetoric as spoken by both white people and people of color. Morris did a good job showing how words can hurt-- even if they weren't intended that way. There's a twist in here that's really well done. I didn't see it coming, although once I thought about it, it all made sense and confirmed some of my initial gut feelings. So props for doing the unexpected and making it a morality play without seeming heavy handed. 

Even though SLAY has its problems and I didn't 100% agree with all the messages in it, I did like the core message of the book: it's a celebration of black excellence, black culture, and female empowerment. I honestly am so excited for all the young girls and boys who are going to read this and enjoy a book about video games with a STEM heroine as the main character. It's so great to see women (especially women of color) getting to live out their geeky wish fulfillment fantasies, too.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!  

3 out of 5 stars

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