Ever played a VR game? How about one with an avatar that you’ve tailored to your exact specifications, in an online world where you can be true to yourself and your culture in every way? Such is the premise of Slay, a teen science fiction story about a young girl with a big dream, looking to bring people together from all over the world. Our heroine has faced severe racism in the gaming world in the past and in turn created a safe space for Black gamers everywhere.
But when the outside world forces its way in, will she be able to manage it?
Kiera Johnson spends her days navigating the halls as one of the only Black students at Jefferson Academy. But by night, she’s not your average seventeen-year-old. She’s Emerald, creator of the widely popular VR game Slay, an online dueling world that’s members only, and outfitted specifically for the Black population.
Kiera’s relationship to the game and her online identity are totally secret to everyone in her life; her sister, parents and friends, even her boyfriend Malcolm have no idea that she’s the developer. Even Cicada, her game mod doesn’t know Kiera’s identity outside of Slay. But things are about to change in the mostly under the radar online world that she’s created.
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.
When a teen is murdered, and his death is linked back to a dispute in the game, Kiera’s ethics are called into question. The media labels her safe space prejudiced and unfair, and the public is asking for her Emerald persona to be held accountable. While attempting to navigate the situation outside of Slay, Kiera is accosted within the game by an outsider. A user known only as Dred wants to take over the game – and he’s willing to do it by force.
Now Kiera will have to face her foes – both inside and outside of the game – and decide who she’ll finally let in. With the help of Cicada – actually named Claire – she’ll rush to show the world how necessary this safe space truly is, and what it means to Slay.
Slay Review: Turbo Charged VR Excitement
Slay had many strengths for me, despite some pacing issues in the latter half of the story. The characters felt grounded – despite spending much of the story in an online game – and the leads are well fleshed out. Unsure of themselves, making poor decisions and navigating the harsh realities of being a young person. You root for Kiera and Claire wholeheartedly after having spent only a few chapters following their exploits. Brittney Morris has captured an element of youth and finding acceptance within your community, and put it to the page. I wanted the build up from the discovery of the murder of Jamal – the young Slay player – to continue throughout, but sadly found myself a little disappointed in the way that things play out for our intrepid heroines.
Separate is not equal
Once the final battle between Kiera and Dred comes to fruition, things began to feel a tad rushed for my liking. Slay had this wonderful build up and creation of this immersive experience, but the battle itself and the 24 or so hours leading up to it felt a little bit… rushed? The tension ahead of time had been so well constructed that I expected a more involved battle, or maybe just a longer one.
The battle and its aftermath – which I won’t spoil – along with the reveal of Dred were fun and unexpected, but maybe not quite as impactful as expected. That said, Slay more than delivers when it comes to its major players. Kiera is developed as a realistic teen, unsure of herself and unwilling to see the more serious problems creeping into her personal life. There are red flags a plenty early on, but she makes excuses, ignores some sisterly advice and won’t accept the truth.
I loved the realistic dynamic between Kiera, her sister and their parents, as well as her navigation of being one of the few Black students at a wealthy school. Throw in the addition of her friends asking uncomfortable questions about race and cultural appropriation and Morris has expertly showcased what many Black youths undoubtedly experience on a daily basis. Slay even gives the reader a look into a relationship with a controlling and domineering partner, something that I wasn’t expecting at all from this story, but is an important issue to address nonetheless.
I thoroughly enjoyed Slay ‘s online world as well as the individual narratives throughout the novel, particularly those of Kiera and Claire. They’re both strong resilient young women living under very different circumstances, who nevertheless experience racism every day, all while discovering a meaningful connection with one another as well as in the world of Slay. Unfortunately the pacing of the novel’s climax and the sequence of events after its peak just felt too rushed for me; I was looking for a more drawn out battle, a longer resolution to a surprise reveal as well as its effect on our protagonist Kiera… just a little more of everything on the tail end of the story really.
The novel’s namesake is its biggest asset; Slay is a fantastical universe where Black people of all ages and circumstances the world over can simply be themselves. If VR gaming is your thing, and if you’re looking for a Ready Player One that’s heavy on the culture and less so on the pop culture, add Slay to your TBR and have a blast.