{Review} SLAY by Brittney Morris

O P E N I N G   H O O K:

    BY DAY, I'M AN honors student at Jefferson Academy. At night, I turn into the Nubian goddess most people know as Emerald.

(Page 1, US ARC edition)

“Kings and queens, you know the drill. We are here first and foremost to celebrate black excellence in all its forms, from all parts of the globe. We are different ages, genders, tribes, tongues, and traditions. But tonight, we are all black. And tonight, we all SLAY.” 


SLAY was the first book I started reading while at this year's Book Expo Conference, and it was a fantastic first choice. I've been waiting months to talk more about this book and how addicting it is. It comes out tomorrow, and I highly recommend picking it up and adding it to your fall TBR!

 I was first intrigued by SLAY because it was pitched as "THE HATE U GIVE" meets "WARCROSS" and not only is that an intriguing concept to begin with, but I went from never reading video game-inspired novels to auto-adding them to my TBR thanks to the aforementioned WARCROSS. I do want to say that I think it is doing SLAY a disservice to directly comp to WARCROSS. Don't go into this one expecting a futuristic, high tech sci-fi thriller. You'll be disappointed. SLAY is very contemporary, and it actually has more of an ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS feel to it. I really enjoyed this book, but I AM a little worried that people will see the comps and go in expecting this book to be something it isn't and not love it for what it is, if that makes sense. I actually had a great conversation at BEA about how a recent big release got comped to something huge and, as a result, people really disliked the book and the comp did it a disservice. So I get that. I really, really get that and have been trying not to comp as much, or to point out the fashion in which I think something comps, because it is more about the heart of the story to me, rather than its outward furnishings, you know?

There's a lot at play that other #OwnVoices reviewers will comment on better than I can, as this book wasn't written with me in mind, but it still gave me so much food for thought and really let me embrace its characters and their worries and struggles. It is full of so much pride and love for black culture and of raising its kings and queens up to be their very best selves. There is so much glory and love in these pages, and it spills over so that anyone can appreciate it, no matter their background.

SLAY is a great title for this novel and has multiple meanings: First, it is the name of the popular underground online game that teenager Kiera Johnson created. Two, it gives players a chance to slay while playing. But a darker, third meaning casts the game into a darker light when a player is murdered and the game's obscurity is shattered as it makes national news, with reporters saying its name showcases the game's violent nature.

Kiera Johnson is outwardly a normal teenager. She goes to school, is on the Honor Roll, has great friends and a swoon-worthy boyfriend. She's also one of only a handful of black students at her school, and often feels stifled to truly be herself. She created an online MMORPG game called Slay for players like herself, who no longer have to reign in their vernacular or thoughts and can exist in a safe space. She creates playing cards that embrace black heritage and showcase its beauty.  In the book, she states,

Five hundred fifty-five of the students at Jefferson are white, leaving just twenty-five students of color estranged and unfamiliar with each other. Most are Indian and East Asian, a handful are Latinx, two are Filipino, and one is Sioux. Only four of us are black--Me, Steph, Malcolm, and the new member of Beta Beta, Jazmin. When your demographic makes up such a tiny slice of the pie, it feels weird to reach out to the only students who look like you. It makes you look desperate. It makes you look shallow. It makes you wish you could retreat into a world where just once you don't feel like an outsider. It's why I created SLAY. I may have to deal with Jefferson all day, but when I come home, I get to pretend I'm not in 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?

Once she's home and safely hidden away in her bedroom, Kiera turns on Slay and becomes Emerald. Right now, the game is in the middle of its semi-finals, which have to be postponed when one of the players doesn't show up. It soon becomes clear that the player was, in fact, murdered in real-life by another Slay player over in-game money. Kiera's world turns upside-down as Slay makes national headlines and the media starts calling the game "violent" and "racist." Nobody knows that Kiera created the game, so she she has no one to turn to and is freaking out. Could someone really sue her? Is she responsible for the fact that one of the players was murdered? And why is the media twisting Slay to be something it's not and casting it in a vicious light?

There is so much going on in Slay and it is very much a contemporary story with fun splashes of in-game scenarios. On top of gaming, Keira also worries about getting into college and whether or not she's making the right choice or the expected choice, as well as about fitting in and what her friends and family think of her, going as far as hiding the fact that she not only plays, but invented Slay from everyone. It also deals with today's culture of online bullying and the way the harassment bleeds over into real life, especially affecting today's youth.

The book is mostly through Keira's perspective, but every once in a while, readers are granted a glimpse from the viewpoint of various Slay players that serve to flesh out the media attention surrounding Slay in ways that Keira can't analyze. They manage not to hinder the story, and only enhance the scope of what's going on. I really like the way we get these little asides, and almost wish there were more of them, or repeats from the various voices being featured. One of my favorite books is Jodi Picoult's KEEPING FAITH, in large part due to the fact that what is going on with Faith is micro-analyzed by so many different outside perspectives, all serving to give the reader a more spherical look at the situation and ability to question the truth from multiple angles. I like that SLAY has hints of this as well, prodding at a situation too frequently seen in the media such as whether or not video games incite violent tendencies and hot-button issues on racism and white supremacy. I really liked seeing the events through various eyes or hearing discourse between Keira and her friends and family because it heightened thoughts and turned SLAY into more of a talking piece. This would be a fantastic book to include in high school curriculums for class discussion or to have at book club.

I also LOVE that the book is also a nod to girl gamers. We exist, too. We even develop games! Gaming isn't just a man's world, and it's so nice to see a book that embraces this aspect and gives female gamers a voice and a goal, rather than serving as secondary characters or traditional male fantasy stereotypes. Whether or not Slay could actually function or come into existence the way it does in the story is another topic, and one that, if you think about it too hard, may pull you from the story. Throw the logistics of how Keira could afford to build such a large free-to-play game or have the time to make it so cohesive or only have two Mods or various other little inconsistencies aside and just take the game at face value and it's brilliant. I think having read WARCROSS, I threw a lot of that gaming atmosphere into my visualization as I read, which made it feel more palpable to be something that could actually happen, especially the way other players stop gaming and instead attend these huge semi-final tournaments from the stands. In reality, this gaming world probably couldn't exist as is, at least, not yet. It's a game that would be fantastic if it were real, however, and if you're a gamer, Simon and Schuster made a fun web version of the game that you can play with friends on social media (notably Twitter, in particular) by visiting the Slay website! How cool is that!?



Content Ratings: highlight between ( ) for details

Romance: PG13 ( kissing, references to Kiera and her boyfriend having sex, though there are never any scenes in the book. Kiera mentions that even though her parents are okay with it, she doesn't want them to hear if Malcom comes over, there's a quip from Malcolm that she'd "bed' not be pregnant" and another character saying it looked like she got some "some-some." )
Language: PG13 ( Cursing, including the F-bomb)
Violence: PG13 ( Happens off-page, but a Slay gamer is murdered over the amount of money he has in the game. )  
Other: G ( Toxic masculinity and the way it can sour a relationship )  
C O V E R   D E S I G N:

I don't know if it screams that it's game-related save for the background, but it will appeal to a wider reading audience this way. I like the graffiti-like title and the way the pink pops and is filtered down into her clothing and skin tone. The colors balance well and really make it pop!

The Y in SLAY pulls down and makes everything a little grittier, alluding to the fact that not everything about the book is pretty or nice, as does the fading on the author's name!

Definitely a cover that's different enough to be striking and get readers to pick it up at the store to see what it's about!
O F F I C I A   I N F O:

Title: SLAY
Author: Brittney Morris
Release Date: Sept. 24, 2019
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Received: For Review

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?