It was announced recently that the sequel to Ready Player One will be released on November this year. I can’t say that I’m too excited by the news. I found the book really annoying and thought the film was kind of dull. I think it’s a problem with all novels that rely too heavily on their pop culture references. For one thing, I think it shows a lack of imagination and writing ability. For another, I think it’s a really lazy way of getting your readers onside. It’s using nostalgia to create engagement instead of a captivating story or developed characters. I’d go so far as to say that Ernest Cline’s YA novel made me quite angry. So angry that I’ve really stopped trusting any book that uses popular culture to draw people in. Which means that Slay wasn’t a natural choice for me to start reading. It’s a YA novel about an online video game and it’s really pushing the Black Panther connection. Writer Brittney Morris was inspired by the movie to write her first novel. Something she apparently accomplished in 11 days. But would it read like an 11-day long composition or would it actually make up for the wounds left by Cline? There was only one way to find out.
The release of Marvel’s Black Panther was a huge achievement for so many reasons. It had a huge impact of so many filmgoers and was a good step forward in terms of Black representation in Hollywood. For Brittney Morris, the film was the thing that pushed her into writing her first novel. That novel was Slay, a YA novel set inside an MMOPRG that aims to provide Black gamers with a safe space to play. The game, Slay, was created by a seventeen-year-old student, Kiera Johnson. Although, none of her friends or family knows that Kiera created the game. Online, she is known only as Emerald. Slay is an exclusive community of gamers and is kept secret from most of the real world. Until one of its players is killed because of an in-game dispute. Soon the media are talking about the game and Kiera finds herself being accused of racism. When an online troll infiltrates the game, will Kiera be able to save her world and avoid being taken to court?
Slay is one of those novels that instantly draws you in with a fantastic concept and interesting characters. Kiera is the kind of protagonist that you want to find in a YA novel. She is intelligent, creative, and strong. She will be relatable to younger readers and has a realistic voice. She’s far less annoying than the characters you normally meet in these types of novels. She also seems like a positive example of a Black voice. Kiera is proud of her culture and knows plenty about it. Yes, she might feel as though she leads a double life thanks to her mostly white school but Kiera is proud of her race. She offers a strong and understandable Black voice that is more important than ever.
Kiera is joined by her co-creator Cicada and younger sister Steph. Both of these characters share her passion, drive and relatability. Cicada offers an interesting perspective as a resident of France. In her few POV chapters, we see her regularly being mistaken for a tourist despite being a native of France. She, like Kiera, felt out-of-place and unable to be herself in the real world, so she needs Slay just as much. Steph, on the other hand, is a confident activist. She has no problem defending her position and arguing her point. She speaks passionately about Black culture and points out systemic racism wherever she sees it. Whatever happens with the Slay story, I can safely say that it is a novel that embraces female power.
Which is good because there aren’t really many positive male figures to be found here. There are a couple on the periphery but the main two male characters we meet are a bit dodgy. There’s Malcolm, Kiera’s boyfriend, who believes that to embrace the cause is to reject any aspect of white culture. Malcolm isn’t a positive character and his relationship with Kiera is the most uncomfortable part of the novel. He spends all of his time gaslighting her. Kiera tries to find a balance between her Blackness and her friendship with her white classmate, Hunter. This isn’t something that Malcolm approves of and constantly makes Kiera feel guilty about it. You’ll spend most of the novel shouting at her for making excuses for him.
But I get why he’s there. The novel does a good job of raising questions about racism, white privilege, and Black identity. It is presenting the different types of activism that you can find and trying to promote questions. All the while celebrating aspects of Black culture thanks to the in-game scenes. Slay is a game that sees players duel with cards. All of the cards have been designed to honour one part of Black culture. The scenes within the game are the ones that really grab your attention. The virtual world seems so exciting and there were endless possibilities there. However, Brittney Morris doesn’t spend an awful lot of time in the world of Slay. It’s a massive shame as the rest of the narrative feels repetitive and slow. The story is slow and the occasional changes in POV seem awkward and unnecessary.
I also think the connection with Black Panther really didn’t do the novel any favours. It certainly makes the “shock” reveal at the end extremely underwhelming. You know exactly how it’s going to turn out because you know that the book links to the film. The plot might not pay out exactly as it does in the Marvel film but it’s close enough that the signposts can be spotted in the first chapter. Maybe Morris was trying to make it obvious but it really doesn’t seem as though it was intended like that. If just makes the novel seem slower because the inevitable reveal is being dragged out for all it’s worth. It’s disappointing as there are so many positives to be found here.
Rating this book was difficult but it does so many wonderful things. As a celebration of Black culture, it’s a joy to read. As a feminist story, it’s powerful. It adds some interesting ideas to anti-racist rhetoric. It’s a fun celebration of gaming and a great way to get younger readers thinking about systemic racism, white privilege, and identity. However, I also think that the links to Black Panther do hinder it. It makes the ending less effective and it limits the possibilities that were to be had. There are moments when it just feels like weird fan fiction. It makes some strange narrative choices that sometimes seem at odds with the overall message the book is trying to present. It’s not a terrible book by any means but I do think it could have been better written.
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