BLOG TOUR: Slay by Brittney Morris

October 29, 2019

Edition: Hodder Children's Books Paperback
Release Date: October 3, 2019
Pages: 323
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary/Fantasy
Source: Received as an ARC from Pan Macmillan
Links: Goodreads | Buy the book | Author's Website

We are different ages, genders, tribes, tongues, and traditions... But tonight we all SLAY.

By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is a college student, and one of the only black kids at Jefferson Academy. By night, she joins hundreds of thousands of black gamers who duel worldwide in the secret online role-playing card game, SLAY.

No one knows Kiera is the game developer - not even her boyfriend, Malcolm. But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, the media labels it an exclusionist, racist hub for thugs.

With threats coming from both inside and outside the game, Kiera must fight to save the safe space she's created. But can she protect SLAY without losing herself?

Consider this a PSA folks, SLAY by Brittney Morris is officially one of my favourite young adult novels released in 2019. You heard it here first, this debut is just all sorts of good! I went into this book with zero expectations and came out with so many of my boxes ticked. Described as Warcross meets Black Panther, SLAY while enjoyable and accessible to all audiences, is a beautiful homage to black culture in its many expressions. It’s an original and imaginative concept that mixes virtual reality with social justice. Therefore, I was SO here for it!

The star of our story is seventeen years old Kiera Johnson, who between waiting for college acceptance letters and navigating high school as one of the only black kids, leads a double life as the developer of a virtual reality game called SLAY that is exclusively for black gamers. In no stretch of the imagination am I a gamer. I’ve dabbled obsessively in Sims and Super Mario Brothers (haven’t we all?) but that’s about it. However, if SLAY were to ever become developed, there is no doubt that I’d probably never leave my room or interact with IRL people ever again. Fear not non-gamers, even without an understanding of how virtual reality works, the excitement and significance of the game is easily understood. 

I am in awe of Brittney Morris’s mind and pray that she makes SLAY into an actual game before someone else comes and steals her rightful bag. It’s super clear that she’s put a lot of thought and time into making the game something that would carry a similar weight if it were to be created for black gamers in real life. 

The game adds a lot of excitement to the book and provides a tonne of badass imagery. If the movie rights to SLAY haven’t already been sold, then I predict it’s only a matter of time. The book is fast-moving with enough battling, debating, and slaying to be easily read in one sitting. I kid you not, I read the entire novel in about three or four hours. However, the most impressive part of SLAY is how Brittney Morris manages to powerfully cover such a plethora of racial issues within the one story. 

"I may have to deal with Jefferson all day, but when I come home, I get to pretend I'm not 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?" Pg.80 

SLAY speaks directly to the nuanced experience of being one of the only black people existing in a predominately white institution. The novel is #ownvoices and will resonate volumes with black readers. Being mixed-race myself, I felt incredibly seen and validated in a way that I rarely am in other young adult fiction. The different conversations and pieces of dialogue had me either clapping my hands repetitively or it had my blood boiling in silent fury as I tried to remind myself that even though the themes were so close to home, the story itself was fiction. 

One of the things that I really valued about SLAY is that it truly describes to non-black readers what it feels like to be tokenised and made the sole spokesperson for your race. It didn’t do so in a way that felt shallow or sensationalised, this is just what’s it’s really like for many black people. The many subtle and not-so-subtle depictions of micro-aggressions might have felt played out for white readers but for those of us that experience them consistently, it was refreshing to see those experiences put to paper and validated. 

Brittney Morris makes clear that while generally accepted that separate isn’t equal, neither is integration without the proper structures put in place to dismantle racial prejudice. If a community isn’t actively anti-racist than it’s likely that they’re unconsciously overlooking communities of colour. Through protagonist Kiera and the other perspectives introduced in the novel, we see how prevalent this is within the gaming community where she is attacked and excluded on the basis of race and gender. 

Consequently, the book talks about the necessity for safe spaces where your community are free to be themselves without question or interruption. It’s no easy feat that SLAY consciously manages to represent a large group of people accurately without being tropey or singular. To my surprise, Murphy also tackles the complicated histories of internalised racism and respectability politics. Boy oh boy was Kiera’s boyfriend Malcolm, a Hotep (explained perfectly, here) if I’ve ever seen one. 

The fallout that happens when a young gamer is killed over SLAY felt incredibly realistic. We’ve seen these sorts of events played out before where violence occurs in the black community and people are quick to make it a race issue. The double standards and racial stereotypes are rampant. Of course, all of the news coverage is led by white voices claiming to be the authority on unrelated issues without ever conferring with more than one black person. As you can imagine, the fury over black-only spaces happens without any consideration of how many spaces are implicitly exclusive to white people. 

“Where one Black man is, there is a thug,” he says. “Where two or more are gathered, there is a gang. So sayeth the word of the white man.” Pg.129

Admittedly, I struggle sometimes with books that are so focused on depicting racism and its impacts because while there’s comfort in representation, books should also provide escapism from all of that mess. Fortunately, while being hard-hitting, the story has so many fun elements that deserve to be celebrated. Aside from being BLACK AF, the story is a fierce celebration of feminism and sisterhood. 

Kiera and her younger sister Steph, are both intelligent and ambitious women who know how to stand up for themselves and each other. The development of their relationship over the story was beautiful to witness and I hope to see more positive sister relationships explored in YA. Similarly, the celebration of internet friendships and found families was super heart-warming and easily one of the best parts of the novel. 

I’m excited to hear the greater response to this book because there is so much to be learned from it. There are plot twists that you think you have figured out until at the last minute it dawns on you that you may have been wrong all along. The story is fresh and unlike many of the YA books that we’ve seen before. Its depiction of blackness will make this book particularly special to black readers but it’s a book I encourage everyone to read should they get the chance. 

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