SLAY in the story is a MMORPG where players duel using in-game cards that derive their names and powers from elements of various Black cultures. Kiera Johnson is 17 years old and should be worrying more about whether or not she’s getting into her first choice college. But she’s also the secret creator and developer for SLAY. She wanted a gaming world that embraced players’ Blackness rather than punishing it. She wanted a space where Black people could express themselves in “unapologetically Black” ways. Except now SLAY has made international news thanks to a grisly murder associated with the game, and it seems like everyone is baying for the blood of SLAY’s mysterious creator, Emerald/Kiera.
In many ways, this basic premise is nothing new, and many a good story has started from a secret that must be kept at all costs. I like that Kiera is actually good at keeping her secret—so often in these stories, it seems like the protagonist tells an ever-increasing number of close friends, swearing them to secrecy, until there’s basically a small village who know her identity. For most of the book, Kiera’s identity is totally unknown, even to SLAY’s sole other employee, Cicada, who lives somewhere in Europe. There are layers to Kiera’s concerns about being outed as well. Beyond the obvious negative attention from media and players that it might bring, Kiera reflects on how her family and friends will variously react to the revelation.
Related to this is one of my favourite things about SLAY: its diverse portrayals of Black women and Black feminism. If one of Morris’ goals is to help move beyond the stereotypes of Black women so often seen on screen and page, she succeeds. Kiera, her sister Steph, and her mother are all feminists but in different ways. Kiera sees SLAY as a vehicle for empowerment and exploration of Black identity, yet she fears that Steph, whose feminism is at a stage where everything is about terminology and figuring out the “right” way to express ideas, would condemn SLAY. Their mother wants the best for their daughters and therefore is wary of things like AAVE and how they act and dress: she wants them to be successful Black women, but her idea of success is different from theirs. The dynamic among these women reminds me of Lynn, Jennifer, and Anissa in Black Lightning: three related women, all of whom are strong and smart and feminist, yet who regularly disagree about what they should do or how they should read a situation. I love these portrayals.
Orbiting these characters are several white ones, particularly Harper and Wyatt, who act as foils for Morris’ explication of the exhausting experience of being minority Black in a school. I liked that Harper acquires some depth over the course of the book; she goes from being Kiera’s best friend who happens to ask awkward white girl questions to someone who takes the time to learn and finally educate herself instead of asking Kiera to do it for her.
Then, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Cicada, Kiera’s partner in the game. We learn a little more about Cicade throughout the course of the book and even get a few chapters that follow her POV, which was as surprising as it was lovely. She’s a little older than Kiera, and the racism that she experiences is different as a result of her location and how she navigates the world. Morris’ choice to present Cicada’s POV and the POV of a few other Black people whose lives intersect with SLAY is interesting, although it seems under-utilized. I was never quite sure when the next non-Kiera chapter would show up, and aside from Cicada we never return to those characters.
Finally, let’s talk a little about Kiera’s relationship with her boyfriend, Malcolm. I’m pretty ambivalent about this one’s characterization. On one hand, Morris tries to lay the groundwork throughout the book: his ever-so-slightly controlling tendencies, his overbearing attitude, his hyper-masculine demeanour, and of course, the way that Kiera makes excuses to us about how one day he will open his eyes and actually see the light of feminism. Mmhmm. The signs of an abusive, or at least proto-abusive, relationship are already there, plain to see. Nevertheless, in some ways Malcolm is more of a caricature. We’re told that he’s like this because of his choices of reading material, that it has somehow radicalized him. Um … okay? But you don’t choose these things in a vacuum. Who has Malcolm been talking to who got him into these texts, and who has curated his journey? Moreover, for a guy who supposedly eschews video games because of their detrimental effects on Black people’s chances to succeed in the world, he seems awfully good at video games and hacking in general.
And then there’s the eleventh hour heel turn reveal, which I don’t want to spoil, but the fallout from that feels rushed. Indeed, the whole denouement of SLAY is rushed. I stayed up late on a weeknight to finish reading this book, because I hit a point where I realized I could not put it down. That’s a big deal. Now, I’m not saying Morris disappointed me—I do like the ending, and I think the climax itself is so skilfully executed that I genuinely doubted the outcome for a few pages—but there’s an awfully big build up beyond that, as the other shoe drops, only for the echo from that shoe to dissipate too quickly.
I want to distinguish between my disappointment over the ending’s pacing (which I felt) versus disappointment over the happy ending (which I did not feel). I suspect that many people are going to read SLAY and think it unrealistic. How can a single 17-year-old girl code a whole VR game from scratch in her bedroom? How can she afford to maintain the game and its servers, and keep her identity secret, for so long? How can SLAY be both an underground phenomenon and this huge game at the same time? How is it that Kiera is just so lucky, towards the end, regarding the various things that go her way?
Honestly I don’t have answers and I don’t really care. I’ll suspend my disbelief regarding the complexities of video game programming and the number of coincidences that line up for Kiera, because I see what Morris is getting at with this book. As she makes abundantly clear in her author’s note, her target audience is not white dudes like me: it’s young Black women who are going through life questioning their Blackness and figuring out their identity. She’s writing for them, which is laudable. Sometimes, you just need a win. SLAY provides that without providing false hope; it is anti-racist but does not pretend that racism is not a huge factor in Black peoples’ lives. As far as a plotting and characterization go, it’s not a great novel all the time, no. That’s why I’m not giving it 5 stars. Yet even with its flaws, as a story SLAY still manages to entertain, to educate (in my experience), and hopefully (for Black people) to empower, although that last one isn’t my verdict to render.
At the end of the day, though, if we can have half a million books about teenage white boys being Chosen Ones, we can have a handful of books about teenage Black girls being uber-developers. I know which trope I’d rather read more of.