“All I ever wanted to do was escape into this magical world where for once I don’t have to act a certain way because I’m Black, and where I don’t have to answer certain questions because I’m the Black authority in the room, and where if I do something that’s not stereotypically Black, I’m different.” ― Brittney Morris, Slay
Slay by Brittney Morris is a rare gem of a book. Advertised as “Black Panther meets Ready Player One,” this debut novel took me on a wild ride in a virtual game world as it explored complex social issues with tact.
After reading the summary for Slay, I needed to get my hands on this book. As a Black girl who has played an MMORPG in the past, I’ve seen first hand that people can be bold about prejudice while hiding behind the mask of an avatar.
Slay tells the story of seventeen-year-old Kiera. On the surface she’s a typical high school senior. She hangs out with friends and is excited to start college with her boyfriend. But Kiera has a secret that she’s hiding from her friends and family: she lives a double life as a developer for Slay, an online MMORPG for Black gamers.
When a teenager is murdered after a game-related dispute, Kiera’s indie game for Black players makes national news. She created the game as a safe space, but now people are calling her game racist and threatening to sue. Kiera must fight to keep her game online.
Slay wasn’t what I expected, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an amazing book. It has multidimensional characters and a message that is desperately needed in today’s world.
Let’s dive into what I liked and what I didn’t.
This book wasn’t exactly what I expected.
On the Amazon blurb, this book is compared to Ready Player One. Ready Player One is heavy on the sci-fi and LITRPG elements. Slay, however, reads more like a contemporary teen novel. Even though the main character is a game developer and we spend some time in her game world, for the majority of this book we are in the real world where we learn about Kiera’s friends, family, sister, boyfriend, and internet pals.
While it is comparable to Ready Player One in its overt use of pop culture references, I found myself wanting to know more about the open world aspects of the game. Most of the gameplay we read about in Slay is focused on card dueling, but it’s hinted that there is much more to the game.
The characters talk about how having a game for Black players creates a safe space away from the racism that is often encountered while gaming. I think showing the open world aspects of the game would have highlighted the community that she fostered within the game.
However, I think the positive aspects of this novel greatly outweigh the negatives.
Questions of identity:
My favorite aspect of this book was the way it explored identity. This book highlights how multi-faceted the Black experience can be, while also exploring how white characters respond to questions of race.
For example, a biracial character questions if she is “Black enough” to play Slay and we read about the opposing viewpoints of a Black student and her Black boyfriend. Readers will also see white characters struggle with questions about racism, asking themselves if a game that only allows Black people to play is inherently a racist game, or simply an escape from the racism that is encountered in games made for white audiences.
I enjoyed the fact that we don’t know who the “bad guy” really is because the internet allows players to remain anonymous. I found myself trying to figure out this mystery alongside the main character until the perpetrator is revealed.
This story doesn’t shy away from difficult questions about safe spaces, unhealthy relationships, racism, friendship, and love. With characters of various backgrounds and viewpoints, this book will challenge readers to think critically about the issues we face today. While this novel asks many questions, it offers few answers. Readers are left to wrestle with solutions on their own.
There are a growing number of YA sci-fi and fantasy books that draw inspiration from Africa (think Children of Blood and Bone and A Song of Wraiths and Ruin), but I appreciate that this book explores the African-American experience in the United States. The main character explores her identity as a Black girl in a predominantly white city and high school. Her challenges will feel familiar to Black readers, and it will give readers who are not Black a unique peek into the Black American experience.
A book like Slay is just what we need in today’s world: a subtle reminder that people who are different than us are human, and an invitation to engage in difficult conversations. The game itself seems like a ton of fun as well. If someone wants to make a card dueling game like Slay, I’ll be the first in line to buy it.