“SLAY” Is a Creative and Geeky Read for Young Black Readers

By day, Kiera Johnson is an honors student, but by night she is Emerald, a video game character in the massive multiplayer online game SLAY. Unbeknownst to her friends, family, and boyfriend, Kiera is also the developer of SLAY.

For a little while, SLAY is a sanctuary where Kiera and other Black gamers can display and express their Blackness without the pressure of expectations and racism. But one day a Black boy is killed over SLAY’s in-game currency and now Kiera’s game is in the news. To make matters worse, a racist has started to troll Kiera from within the game and threatening to sue her for discrimination. Now, Kiera must find the strength to reclaim SLAY and stand up for the game and herself.

Slay book coverOne of the things that I enjoyed about this book is the concept of the game SLAY. Not only is it a cool mashup of a card battle game and a fighting game, but I really appreciated the amount of detail that the author put into the game’s rules, the player versus player battles, and the cards themselves. Having a video game exclusively for Black people with cards inspired by Black culture and the diaspora is delightful. Some of my favorite cards were the Gabby Douglas card, which gave the player the power to do gymnastics, and the Unbothered Card, which shields you from attack energy and then has a surprising effect. Not to mention, the player versus player battles are described in a way that it makes you feel you’re watching the battle as a spectator.

The book also does a good job of showing why SLAY matters to people. In between chapters focused on the book’s main protagonist, Kiera, we also have chapters focused on various SLAY players around the world. One chapter focuses on a mixed Black SLAY game moderator living in Paris and dealing with microaggressions, and another deals with a Black father learning to understand their kids by playing SLAY. There is even a chapter with a closeted Black trans girl playing SLAY. These chapters demonstrate how SLAY is a place to escape, where players can be their authentic selves and pour their hearts and passions into it. These chapters provide new perspectives on the game to consider, especially once the game becomes a topic of debate among people who don’t play it or aren’t the game’s demographic.

In fact, this debate is one part of Kiera’s larger central conflict as a character, which mainly stems from the fact that she feels she has to hide and conform parts of herself that don’t fit the ideals and expectations of Blackness pushed onto her by both Black and white people. Some of these people include her Black boyfriend, Malcolm, her mother, and white peers like Wyatt and Harper. These pressures never go away when you’re Black, and they are especially harmful for young Black people just coming into who they are. The exhaustion and exasperation that Kiera feels is shown in dialogue such as, “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 the minority, that my super curly hair isn’t ‘weird’ or ‘funky,’ or ‘new’ and ‘different.’”

Although Kiera initially feels it’s impossible for anyone to understand the pressures she faces, she gradually takes steps to get some people to understand. One of the most important steps she takes is with her family, especially her younger sister, Steph. Not only does this bring them closer together through SLAY, but Steph also becomes one of Kiera’s biggest real-world supporters when a certain character shows their true colors and becomes a threat to Kiera. Their sibling bond is very poignant to watch and ended up being my favorite relationship in the book.

In fact, Steph’s guidance also causes Kiera to become more socially aware. Before Kiera opened up to Steph, she was aware of how being a Black girl caused other people to treat her, but she felt she was alone in her experiences because of Steph’s tendency to overanalyze things at times and the fact that she and Kiera are the only Black girls at the school they attend. Once Kiera opens up to Steph, she also opens up to other people who play SLAY and finds that her experiences are echoed by others and that these experiences don’t have to ruin her self-image or the thing she’s created. Accompanying Kiera’s personal journey were easy-to-understand explanations of terms like “Slay” and “hotep,” which could help young Black readers who may need to explore and define Blackness on their own terms.

While the book is mostly great, I would have liked to see more of SLAY’s game world outside of the player-versus-player battles. Kiera didn’t just make a PVP card battle game—she made an entire world with players, cards, and areas inspired by Black culture. In hindsight, this exploration may not have fit the narrative well, since the book is mainly set in the real world, but maybe a spinoff book could resolve this issue in the future. I also didn’t like how Kiera felt that she had to make nice with white siblings Wyatt and Hayley even after their racism and microaggressions made her uncomfortable. Instead, I wish she could’ve had at least one Black friend in the same state or country who played SLAY.

All in all, Brittney Morris’s SLAY is a creative, geeky read that will touch young Black readers, whether or not they play video games. It demonstrates that even though you may have to fight to do so, you can be your fullest self regardless of what anyone else thinks.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Tima Miroshnichenko