Slay Queen

A Debut YA Thriller About the World of Black Gamers

Every day, the world spotlights Kiera’s race.

It can be annoying, like when people constantly ask her to weigh in on dreads or cultural appropriation, since she’s one of only a handful of black students at her suburban Seattle school. Or when her boyfriend, Malcolm, insists that the only acceptable future plan requires them each to attend historically black universities.

It can also be a relief, when she SLAYs.

SLAY is an online multi-player battle arena designed explicitly for black gamers. Costumes, duel cards, maps, and powers all draw from black cultures across the globe. When Kiera dons her virtual-reality headset, gloves, and socks and becomes Emerald, what pops up dazzles her.

“Everyone’s configured their characters to be different shades, from Zendaya to Lupita, and I am living for it,” she thinks, early on in Brittney Morris’ young-adult novel SLAY. “There’s forehead jewelry and face paint, flowers, feathers, beads, glitter, Afros the size of small vehicles and braids as long and thick as pythons. I spot dashikis, Mursi lip plates, otjize clay, Ulwaluko blankets, Marley twists, Michael Jackson’s glove, and a man in a purple cape twice as tall as me in the front row who’s trying a little too hard to be Prince.”

Kiera doesn’t just play, though. She created and developed SLAY, and moderates it with the help of a fellow gamer she knows only as Cicada. She’s kept her role a secret from everyone, including her family and Malcolm. But when one teen-ager kills another over in-game currency, suddenly SLAY is hot news.

That gives debut author Morris the opportunity to make SLAY both a gaming-themed thriller and a compulsively-readable exploration of the many facets of black culture. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable primer on the breadth and depth of black opinions and experiences.

Morris’ novel nimbly compares Kiera’s world with those of her sister, her boyfriend, her fellow gamers, and her white friends. Kiera rolls her eyes at sister Steph’s dinner-table lectures on AAVE and Martin Luther King. She wonders what will happen to her and Malcolm if she dares choose Emory over Spelman. She watches with horror as television talking heads dissect SLAY, which they unthinkingly attribute to an unnamed male developer. “Frankly, I’m offended by the silence of this mysterious developer, Emerald,” sniffs one TV host. “He’s the one we should be tracking down and demanding answers from.”

While there are serious issues at hand, Morris also leavens the story with her name-checks in the game, which features black icons like Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong but also funny cultural touchstones like That One Auntie’s Potato Salad, “you know, that auntie who’s not allowed to bring food to the cookout unless it has a price tag on it. … I’ve seen all kinds of things in Auntie Tina’s–raisins, almonds, grapes, pickles, peas and avocado chunks.”

And while Kiera must defend her beloved online respite from lawsuit threats and menacing trolls, most importantly, she defends her space. SLAY explodes the idea that there’s only one way to tell a population’s story.

“I think I love SLAY so much because we’re a mutually empathetic collective,” Kiera says. “As we duel, as we chat, there’s an understanding that ‘your Black is not my Black’ and ‘your weird is not my weird’ and ‘your beautiful is not my beautiful,’ and that’s okay.”

(Simon Pulse, September 24, 2019)

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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