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?
Let me start this off by saying that I had absolutely zero expectations when I picked this book up. I knew that it had gotten very good reviews, including many four- and five-star ratings from people that I follow, but I don’t always have an easy time connecting with gaming books. Within the first few chapters, I was blown away. The first note I wrote down for this book was “This is so well-written!” and honestly, it only got better from there.
The premise of this book is that Kiera, a Black teenager, has created an online MMORPG-type game in which players duel using cards based on Black history and Black culture. The game is exclusive to Black people and intended to be a safe space after Kiera experiences online bullying in a different, more widely-played MMORPG. Although her game has hundreds of thousands of players, it remains mostly unknown until a teenager is murdered over an in-game dispute. Kiera’s game is suddenly all over the news, with commentators calling it racist and strangers demanding that she make a statement. Being a teenager, she’s not sure what to do, and is understandably freaked out.
So, the first thing I want to talk about is the game of Slay itself. I’ve played the occasional game here and there, but I wouldn’t call myself a gamer. I’ve never played any kind of MMORPG, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the gameplay or anything like that that I’ve seen in other reviews. What I can say, though, is that Slay felt like a real game to me. It’s described so well, from the character creation to the rules to the depictions of duels, that I felt like there were probably hundreds of thousands of people actually playing it every day. I do also want to say that I don’t think whether it’s realistic for a teenage girl to have designed a game like this is the point of this book.
The next thing I want to talk about is the characters. Kiera was so realistic, so well-developed, and so complex. She felt like a normal teenager that you could meet in any high school and like someone it would be great to be friends with. She’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s really sick of being the token Black kid in her mostly white school who’s somehow required to answer every single question about race. The side characters were also really well-developed and realistic. Kiera’s sister, Steph, played a great role in the book, sometimes arguing with her but always supporting her. Her boyfriend, Malcolm, was absolutely awful and one of my notes from about halfway through says “Kiera deserves so much better than Malcolm — I hope he gets better or she breaks up with him. She’s not responsible for his actions and he treats her so unfairly.” I think that the author did a great job of portraying a realistic high school experience with realistic high school problems.
And finally, we have the whole point of this book: the debate over whether Slay is inherently racist. In my opinion? No, and all of the people who’d never even looked at the game or bothered to ask questions about it calling it racist made me so angry! But that’s an issue that I think different readers will take different stances on, and that’s okay. This is a book that makes you think, and it does it without sounding like it’s trying to shove any kind of message down your throat.
Final verdict? This book was incredible and I highly recommend it.
Have you read Slay? Is it on your TBR?
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