Published by Simon Pulse on September 24th 2019
Genres: Sci Fi
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?
I read Slay back in October 2018, but I was left with a big jumble of conflicting thoughts, so I’m only just getting around to reviewing it now I’ve had time to mull my feelings over a bit.
So, first of all, there are lots of things I liked about Slay. I loved Keira, the kick-ass, determined, supremely talented gamer. I really liked her sister Steph, although occasionally her rants seemed a little heavy-handed; some of her explanations about culture were excellent reading, but it felt a bit forced when she’s explaining Black language use to her Black parents. I would have liked to see more of the mod who helps with the site, Cicada, who I thought was a really interesting POV character. One of the strongest points of the book is the relationships between these three, and how each of the characters responds to the events in the story. I thought the concept was really cool, and I loved the idea of the game itself – the fact all the cards were based on Black culture is really cool, and I could totally understand Keira’s drive to create the platform.
I did find the concept implausible though, and every time we learned more about Slay and how Keira had created it, it jarred me out of the story. I don’t personally understand how Keira could have juggled being a great student around having a boyfriend and social life, whilst also building a complex video game which no one in her family knows about – for THREE YEARS. Aside from the financial and logistical issues – VR equipment, dealing with servers in Paris, learning how to do literally every part of the design from concept to coding to graphics and sound effects – I just don’t see how any one human could have enough hours or energy in the day!
The next point is a tricky and potentially controversial one – while I loved the idea of Slay and it being a safe space for Black gamers, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the idea of it being ONLY available to Black players. By all means, advertise it to Black players, hammer home the idea of it being a safe space, have strict mod rules to kick out players who jeopardise that and emphasise the role of Black culture in the rules and concept of the game, but don’t ban white players altogether. It seems to me the game has the potential to bring people together – to help white people understand more about Black people and culture, and bringing people together in positive ways is one of the research-backed approaches to tackling discrimination and prejudice. I honestly don’t mean this to sound like a privileged white person complaining about racism against white people, because frankly that concept is a load of rubbish – I would be significantly more uncomfortable if it was a game created by a white woman that excluded POC – I just don’t think more division is the answer. I’m a bisexual woman married to a man – if I created a game specifically for lesbian, bisexual and gay cis people but excluded trans people, it seems to me that would be unequivocally wrong. Equally, if I was excluded from a site about LGBTQ+ communities because I ‘wasn’t gay enough’ because I’m married to a man, that’d be wrong; yes either way the aim would be supporting a minority group, but is it really necessary to tear down another to do so? I back Keira’s aim to lift up the Black community whole-heartedly, but there’s just something a little bit uncomfortable about deliberately excluding people. Not to mention the fact that there’s no mention of other people of colour throughout the book. This is of course purely my opinion, and as I said, the book really forced me to analyse my own feelings, and I’m still not 100% certain how I feel – generally I think positive discrimination is a good thing, so my feelings may change, but for now, it seems like a waste not to allow people in to try and bridge gaps. I fully acknowledge that it isn’t the job of Black creators to educate others, but if someone is trying to learn more about things they’re ignorant about, it seems like a waste not to let them in to do so.
I thought the plot was fantastic, although a little rushed at the end – the villain feels very two-dimensional, and I’d have liked to see more to explain their motivation. I desperately wanted to know how the potential lawsuit would play out and I loved reading all the different opinions about Slay, from the parents to kids to a lawyer Keira’s friends; I couldn’t figure out from my own point of view whether Keira had done anything wrong, let alone what the law might conclude, and the more points of view I read, the more complicated the idea got. Combine the addictive plot with the writing, which is both easy and gripping and you end up with a book that is impossible to put down – I finished it in a single sitting. It’s a thought-provoking, debate-inspiring book, and even months after finishing I have a hard time making sense of all my thoughts and feelings, but I would 100% say it’s worth reading. It has a gripping sci-fi story, as well as plenty of real-world ideas to think about, and I’ll definitely be adding a copy to my classroom library.