‘By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is a college student, and one of the only black kids at Jefferson Academy. By night, she joins hundreds of thousands of black gamers who duel worldwide in the secret online role-playing card game, SLAY.
No one knows Kiera is the game developer – not even her boyfriend, Malcolm. But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, the media labels it an exclusionist, racist hub for thugs.
With threats coming from both inside and outside the game, Kiera must fight to save the safe space she’s created. But can she protect SLAY without losing herself?’
SLAY is one of those books that I picked up intending to read the first few chapters of and ended up halfway through it before realising quite how long I’d been reading for. I thoroughly enjoyed SLAY and found it incredibly engaging. It’s quick to reel the reader in, its pacing – both in the real world and that of the virtual reality – fast and story to the point, which is one of the things I liked most about it. There’s an urgency to the narrative that doesn’t let you gain much distance from the ideas at its heart as they are examined, the need to acknowledge the topics within as a matter of keen importance paired with Kiera’s imperative need to fight for and shield the world she’s built for so many.
In creating SLAY, Kiera has constructed a game that uses virtual reality equipment to bring the player to a fantasy world, where they can primarily get involved with the card collecting and wielding element of the game, as well as roleplay characters and build their own homes. The cards themselves are based on elements of black culture and become different powers and buffs when used in a duel, seen as additions to players’ avatars. To maintain a safe environment for her players, she has done her best to ensure that only black players can access SLAY, meaning for the game to be a celebration of culture, achievement and somewhere free of the racism that is a ugly part of the real world. This being her intention, that her game is labelled as racist and one that deliberately excludes others in the aftermath of the murder hurts her deeply, and one cannot help but flinch that people have the audacity to suggest such a thing.
Malcolm’s behaviour is almost immediately unsettling, particularly the manner in which he speaks of and addresses Kiera. He rather frequently refers to her in a fashion that suggests she is an object, she is his, and he is to be obeyed, while telling her how she ought to behave towards others and what she ought to think. He builds her up in one moment, provided it is in the way he permits, and tears her down in the next. I don’t mean to suggest that he is incorrect for being angry of the injustices of the past and present, but how he behaves both towards her and others, using said anger as an excuse for increasingly poor behaviour that begins to spiral completely out of control, is one of the things that has stuck in my mind long after finishing the novel.
The discussion of online gaming creating safe spaces focuses on something that I feel is becoming increasingly important, particularly as they are many who are determined to believe that gaming is something dangerous that can only perpetuate violence. Those who have never been a part of a gaming community might never understand how much a positive part of a person’s life that they can become and never see online friendships as ‘real’ ones, which is one reason why I particularly appreciated the portrayal of Kiera and Claire’s friendship as supportive and something that brings them both joy and ultimately leads to good things. Those who are a part of the SLAY community are there to share their culture and uniqueness and all that is brilliant about each individual and I especially enjoyed that the different viewpoints in the novel thread together to build and bring worlds closer, encompassing friendships, family and more.
SLAY is out today from Hachette Children’s Books! Thank you to the publisher and Team BKMRK for sending me a proof copy!