Well, I didn’t expect to end up writing such a negative review for Slay. I loved the premise – black girl creates a safe space online for black gamers, but gets accosted by the media when it comes out that a man died because of her game. Excellent. Unfortunately it really doesn’t deliver and I spent a large portion of my reading time wanting to throw it across the room.
Plot summary for Slay:
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?
Star Rating for Slay: * * (two stars)
Slay was an excellent opportunity on so many levels – a black girl is hugely talented at STEM, and therefore demonstrates to all her readers that they can be skilled in whatever they damn well please. Except not.
STEM that ‘stems’ from nowhere.
Firstly, the premise is just so unbelievable. This seventeen year old girl has somehow created a virtual reality game (with technology that is barely available today), for 500,000 players, with 1,200+ abilities, and mind-blowing graphics that look real. She has done this after school, with no assistance or money, whilst maintaining high grades, a social life and a boyfriend, and also keeping it secret from everybody.
And we never see her program or code, or do anything, really. It was such a great opportunity to show young women how they could use their skills, but we just see an end product and we’re told it’s wonderful. There’s no real encouragement there, and it’s never dwelled upon what an incredible achievement it is.
Slay has been compared to Ready Player One quite a bit, which isn’t really a fair comparison. They both have virtual reality games, but completely different ones, and the plot isn’t at all similar. So, no.
From the blurb, I was expecting battles with the media, lawyers, courtrooms, interviews… everything that would really happen if a man died because of a Black-people-only virtual reality game. Kiera does catch a glimpse of the news once or twice, but that’s it. It was disappointing that we didn’t get a look at any of the real world implications.
Instead, it’s just… domestic. So painfully domestic. The plot focuses on keeping the game from her friends, family and boyfriend, not any wider issues, and I just really didn’t care. I’d picked it up for Teenager v the World, not Teenager Doesn’t Trust Her Parents.
The ending doesn’t make any sense. The choice that Kiera made, and the outcome of that choice, should in no way lead to everything else just fizzling away! It doesn’t make sense! The implications in the real world would not have gone away just because she did That. I’m trying to be spoiler-free, but honestly, it’s mindblowing.
I will say that Slay would likely make an amazing TV show. The in-game duels would look incredible, and time could be devoted to Kiera’s struggles in all-white school as well as the wider world’s reactions to the game. If they got the balance right (i.e. not too much CGI and shiny effects, and a decent amount of focus on the issues), it could work really well.
I freely accept that I’m easily annoyed by people, fictional entities included. But Kiera Johnson, oh my.
She’s just such a typical YA character! Her only traits include being Black and (allegedly) being good at programming. She has no actual personality to speak of, aside from flashes of naivety and poor-decision making.
A la a lot of YA novels, she jumps to flash assumptions that clearly don’t make any sense and assumes one of her friends is an all-out Nazi when he has the nerve to disagree with her on whether there is a legal case against her. She just decides he’s racist and moves on with her life, when actually he just had a different legal opinion.
She has the naivety to be confused and heart-broken when a professional tells her there may be a case against her for excluding certain races from her game. And, for the record, I’m talking about a legal case, not arguing ethics. How can she possibly not see that!?
Lastly, she defends her abusive boyfriend right through the book as ‘passionate and confused’ and I CANNOT get on board with that. She never once realises that she was the victim and that what he did to her was wrong. She argues it until the end, and refuses to call the Police, and the author’s failure to draw a line under that makes me very uncomfortable.
I thought that some of Kiera’s discussions and opinions were really interesting. She is sick of being treated as ‘the Gatekeeper of Black culture,’ when her white friends constantly ask her questions like whether it would be offensive for them to get dreadlocks. It’s an insight that I had never seen before, and I’ve read that Kiera’s words in this regard resonate with a lot of people.
However, her other opinions are just so… eeesh. She’s not all-out anti-white people, but at the same time, she doesn’t want much to do with them. One of her online friends, with whom she has been close for three years, feels the need to ask her if it’s ‘okay’ that she’s only half-Black, and if she needs to leave the game because of it. That’s how Kiera comes across.
I had assumed this was some sort of character development train, and she would become tolerant of others towards the end, but apparently not. Those are Kiera’s opinions and apparently that’s just okay.
Also, the game she has created makes quite a lot of jokes about Black people and culture. The point of the game is to use special abilities in a duel, and all these abilities are based on black culture. Some are really fun – there’s a Michael Jackson card where zombies crawl up from the ground, and a Michael Jordan card that lets you jump really high. Others… others made me cringe. Things like the ‘Weave’ card, or the ‘Afro’ card that envelops you in a giant wad of hair. Or the ‘Aint Bothered’ card, or ‘Mcdonalds money.’ If I saw these things in real life, I would have assumed they were written by a disrespectful white person. The author is black, and the character is black, and the players were all black, and I appreciate the context is therefore different. However my concern would be that younger readers may not appreciate that context and think that these were acceptable things to joke about generally.
Slay is more a collection of messages than an actual story.
It has some interesting discussions about the way black people are treated by even well-intentioned white people, but the plot just doesn’t make any sense and Kiera herself is horrendous.