Book Review: Slay

by Brittney Morris
Young Adult
321 pages
Published September 2019

So I need to begin this review by saying this book was not meant for me. It was written for black teens. Black gamer teens, specifically, but it is 100% about being black, and all the beautiful variety that entails.

I have never seen so many Black issues combined in a single book, and done so beautifully and cohesively. From being the “Black friend” expected to speak for all black people, to dealing with racial bigotry in video games, to wondering if you’re “Black enough,” to refusing to call the cops on a black man, to misogynoir, to the occasional belief that if black women don’t date black men they hate their own race, to whether AAVE is respectable or not, to simply wanting your own space to be black in without being judged – Morris hits SO MANY POINTS and does it in a natural way.

My ONLY complaint about the book is that Kiera is somehow juggling being an honors student, tutoring friends, having a boyfriend, and somehow also hiding the secret that she’s one of two developers for an online game with hundreds of thousands of users? They’re aren’t enough hours in the day! I feel like the author doesn’t realize how much work goes into coding that kind of environment. So I had to suspend my disbelief when it came to that part of the story. Everything else, though, is just fantastic.

The video game itself is fascinating – it’s a VR-based game, so you slip on a headset, gloves, and socks, and walk around as your character, collecting items and using in-game coins to buy cards to duel with. The cards are inspired by all manner of Black culture, from Fufu, a staple food in many African countries, to “That One Auntie’s Potato Salad” and “Reclaiming My Time” (which makes you go REALLY FAST). Each duelist gets to pull, at random, six cards from their decks to duel with, and they have access to every card they personally have bought. Better cards cost more in-game money, or rarer in-game materials to make. It’s a really, really cool idea for a game, and I kind of want somebody to make it now.

The book does need a few content warnings – there’s emotional abuse and cyber-stalking. It’s pretty impactful when it happens.

I loved the book, but as I said, I am absolutely not its intended audience. For that, read this glowing review over at Black Girl Nerds.

I think the book is a good look at the pressure black people – especially black girls – are under. Because it’s never just one issue, even if books like to concentrate on one or a few. It’s always all of them, every day. We’re not always aware of that, as white people – and we should be.

From the cover of Slay:

By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer – not her friends, not her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are a “distraction to keep the Black man from becoming great.”

But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, Kiera faces potentially being sued for “antiwhite discrimination,” and an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to harass all the players and take over.

Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?

Friday 56 – Song of the Crimson Flower

song of the crimson flowerThe Friday 56 is hosted by Freda’s Voice. The rules are simple – turn to page 56 in your current read (or 56% in your e-reader) and post a few non-spoilery sentences.

This week’s quote is from Song of the Crimson Flower, the third book in the Forest of a Thousand Lanterns trilogy by Julie C. Dao. (The second book was Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix.) These are a gorgeous pair of paragraphs, and illustrate why I love this author.

And yet, as night began to fall, Bao could easily imagine this part of the river to be home to a witch. Here the trees bent their ropy necks over the water, blocking out the sun, and the limestone mountains hovered like malicious giants casting shadows over the land. The riverbanks seemed to close in on either side, and the branches in the water were sentinels, lifting their thick, mold-strewn leaves in warning.

Bao shivered despite the pungent heat, forgetting his hunger. He considered turning the boat back and trying an alternate route; he was certain that while dreaming his disturbing dreams, he had missed other possible paths. But his resolve hardened before he could dig his oar into the riverbank and flip himself around. Going back in the direction from which he had come felt like losing a battle. It felt like returning to Lan, like admitting his worthlessness. This was meant to be a new beginning, and what was a new beginning without adventure?

TTT – Top Ten Highlights from the Baltimore Book Festival

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s theme is Books That Give Off Autumn Vibes, but I’ve been utterly lost as to what to list for it, so I am going TOTALLY off-script to give you my top ten highlights from the Baltimore Book Festival last weekend! I talked a little bit about this on Sunday, but I didn’t cover anything that actually HAPPENED on Sunday, and I just – have more to say, LOL. I should have thought to take pictures of the panels, but I will embed tweets of people who did!

My Number One Top Highlight from the Festival was the Disability Panel. “Blind Swordfighters and Wheelchairs on Spaceships: Making Space for Disability” was an INCREDIBLE panel with INCREDIBLE panelists. The panelists ranged from blind to deaf-blind to chronic illness to cerebral palsy. Some had adaptive devices, some had service dogs, some did not. It was a glorious range of experiences talking about disability in spec fic and they were FIRE. They discussed some of the difficulties with writing books starring disabled characters – how you can be held up as “THE book” about a disability, when really it’s only representative of how one person experiences that disability. (This came up in the Queerer Worlds panel too, but more on that later.) They ripped apart this idea that disabled people wouldn’t survive in space, or in post-apocalyptic worlds. I really loved the discussion about if you have a village in a fantasy world that is constantly attacked by orcs, you HAVE to have disabled people. They’re going to have PTSD and anxiety. People are going to have disabling injuries. It’s not believable that there aren’t any disabilities in these worlds! It was a fantastic panel, and the authors and editors on it are all amazing.
Panelists: Elsa Sjunesson-Henry, Sunny Moraine, Victoria Lee, A.T. Greenblatt, Day Al-Mohamed.

My Second Highlight (and I’m having trouble ranking these!) was the Queerer Worlds Panel. This panel closed out the weekend, and I’m glad it did, because that meant they could go over their allotted time. There were a lot of shared themes with the Disability Panel; queer people exist and should be in spec fic worlds. Victoria Lee actually took this a step further and informed the audience that in her current books, The Fever King and The Electric Heir, there ARE no cishet people. They’re ALL queer. I had not realized that from reading The Fever King, but looking back on it, it’s only because that’s assumed to be the default if not explicitly stated otherwise. I’m reading The Electric Heir with an entirely different viewpoint and I love it. (Yes, I’m currently reading The Electric Heir, I’ll get back to that!) Everyone on this panel was an absolute DELIGHT. We’d (my spouse attended Saturday and Sunday with me) met several of the panelists earlier in the weekend, so it was very fun to banter with them a little during the panel. They reiterated the Wonder Woman problem – when there is so little representation, you can be expected to be representative of the entire range of an identity, and that’s just not the way it works. Nibedita Sen ultimately summed up the entire panel in one sentence: “MAKE IT GAY YOU COWARDS!” (Other suggestions included “I LOVE GAY SHIT” and “BE GAY DO CRIMES”)
Panelists: Alison Wilgus, K.M. Szpara, Nibedita Sen, Victoria Lee.

My third highlight happened at the very end of the Queerer Worlds panel. I….may have fangirled a bit, but my spouse says it was adorable, so hopefully Victoria Lee thought so too! I finished The Fever King Thursday night, just before the Book Festival kicked off on Friday. So after spending the entire weekend drooling at the ARC of The Electric Heir that Victoria Lee had in front of her at panels, I told her after the Queerer Worlds panel that I’d been daydreaming about snagging it off the table and just – running, LOL. She grinned, said she didn’t want to take it home, and would I like it? My brain just shorted out and all I could say was YES. While I was clutching the book, she then asked if I’d like her to sign it, which, um, ALSO YES. I don’t think I said anything but OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH  MY GOD the whole walk out to the car. I HAVE AN ARC OF THE ELECTRIC HEIR. I’m mostly over the incoherent screaming, but I still look over at it and squee.

My fourth highlight is similar, but it BEGAN the Festival. I follow K.M. Szpara on Twitter, so I knew he had ARCs of his upcoming debut novel, Docile, to give out at the festival. He was sitting at the SFF table when I arrived early for the first panel on Friday, and we got to chat for a while (he’s AWESOME) and when I asked if I could buy his book somewhere (I was under the mistaken impression it was out already!) he offered me an ARC instead. I honestly don’t know why I thought it was out when I knew he had ARCs – that’s kind of an indication it’s NOT out – durrr, Crystal, wtf – BUT I have a signed ARC of Docile now. So I began and ended the festival by getting two signed ARCs of books I am REALLY excited about. It absolutely made my weekend.

My fifth highlight is the diversity of the panelists. The team planning the panels for the SFF stage (I know part of the team is Sarah Pinsker and K.M. Szpara, so they get some of the credit, I’m not sure who else shares in it) is amazing. Almost every single panel we went to had more than one gender present, people of color, multiple sexualities, AND people with disabilities. There were a few that had no people of color; in one case, while everyone was white, one of them was a Russian immigrant woman. But over three days of panels, to only be able to think of one specific panel that didn’t have people of color? I didn’t attend EVERY panel at the SFF stage, but I was there A LOT. Absolutely A+ programming.

Six is just that the Book Festival fanned the flames of my love of reading. I won’t say it reignited it, because I wasn’t exactly in a reading slump, but I was slowing down. It is back to a raging thirst to devour novels, though, after talking about what makes spec fic great and where it needs to grow. I have a list of new authors and new content to track down, and I can’t wait to get started. Too bad daily life like laundry, feeding my family, and writing blog entries is taking me away from reading!

Seven is the conversations sparked between my spouse and I after attending panels. They’re about….70% of the book nerd that I am. Which is still pretty high! They didn’t make to Friday’s panels because they had to work, but they came with me Saturday and Sunday, and we’ve been talking about topics raised by the panelists ever since. We were using our constantly open text message conversation to write down titles and authors we need to look up, and I need to get that written down elsewhere so I don’t have to keep scrolling up to find things! I’ve learned a lot about what they like and don’t like in things like dystopias (I love them, they mostly dislike them, but there are exceptions) and romance. (GTFO HETERONORMATIVITY)

Eight was when my spouse and I stepped out of the News Media in SFF panel, because we needed to stretch our legs before the Queerer Worlds panel, and stumbled upon K.M. Szpara, Sarah Pinsker, and Bob Proehl doing SCIENCE! This was HILARIOUS, and I’m so glad we were there to see it in person.

Nine are the book and short story recommendations we received. I’m probably going to be subscribing to Uncanny Magazine soon, but I bought the two issues starring disabled authors, Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction! (edited by Elsa Sjunesson-Henry) and Disabled People Destroy Fantasy! and I’m really looking forward to reading those. The comics and graphic novel panel gave us such fun recommendations as The Invitation (lovecraftian horror with LOTS of sex), Filthy Figments, “irreverent humorous pornographic stories” (requires a subscription though), O Human Star, about a trio of robots and robotics scientists, and Moonshadow, a “fairytale for adults.” (Also the only non-webcomic of the four I wrote down.)

Sunny Moraine, from the Disability panel, has two short stories on the internet dealing with different aspects of mental health; Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color and Singing With All My Skin And Bone. Another short story recommended on Friday is Things With Beards by Sam J. Miller, described as a fanfic sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing. There were many other things recommended that I simply added to my Goodreads To-Read list – far too many to fully list here, but I’ll give you some highlights. The Grace of Kings starts a trilogy by Ken Liu, who translated the Three-Body Problem and was the editor of Broken Stars, a collection of translated Chinese SFF I was reading before running into the library due date! Rhetorics of Fantasy is a nonfiction book that might help me to get deeper into my reviews.

Ten are ALL THE AUTHORS WE MET. I’m going to link to their Twitters here, because I’ve followed A TON of them.
Heading the list are K.M. Szpara and Sarah Pinsker, who are, to my knowledge, largely responsible for the SFF programming. They were both quite wonderful to talk to, and I’m thinking of asking them how I could get involved next year, because I think it would be a lot of fun. I’m not a member of SFWA, though, and I’m not really a writer, just a blogger, so I don’t know if I can be a part of it? Anyway. I bought Sarah’s book, A Song For A New Day, and have the ARC of K.M.’s debut, Docile. (He also wrote the fantastic short story, Small Changes Over Long Periods Of Time.)

I added two romance authors to my Twitter, and one of them is romance/SFF, so the one solely romance author is Robin Covington. She was one of the bright spots of the few Romance panels I went to. I was otherwise largely unimpressed with the Romance programming. The other romance and SFF author is R.R. Angell, a charming older queer gentleman who writes queer SFF romance. I bought his book Best Game Ever and had him sign it. I appreciated that he made a point of announcing his pronouns on every panel he was on.

Victoria Lee was AMAZING and I already loved The Fever King but I will now read everything she writes. She struggles with chronic illness too, and I will always support my people!

Saturday night I was looking up who was on the Queerer Worlds panel, and realized I knew who everyone was except Alison Wilgus; when I googled them I realized we’d been talking to them the day before and really enjoyed it! So we were pretty excited to hear what she had to say. And she’s awesome.

Day Al-Mohamed, Sunny Moraine, and Elsa Sjunesson-Henry, all from the Disability panel, are all great. Erin Roberts was on the Monarchy panel, and I wish she’d had more time to talk, because I wanted to hear more from her specifically. Ruthanna Emrys was on several panels, and writes eldritch horror; I picked up her first book this weekend. Lesley Penelope was also on several panels, and I want to read her books as well. Lara Elena Donnelly, author of The Amberlough Dossier, was also on several panels, and I could have listened to her talk for MUCH longer.

I had SUCH an amazing weekend. The Baltimore Book Festival is always a highlight of my year, and it coinciding with Daylight Savings Time (so I got an extra hour of sleep Saturday night!) was a godsend. I have so much reading to do now!


Book Review: Girl of Nightmares

girl of nightmaresGirl of Nightmares
by Kendare Blake
Young Adult / Horror
332 pages
Published 2012

This is the last of my spooky reads; it’s a little late because I had to get it through the statewide lending system instead of my county’s library, so it took a little longer to get to me. It’s the sequel to Anna Dressed In Blood, which I reviewed last week.

It is impossible to begin to discuss this book without a MAJOR SPOILER for the first book, so if you haven’t read Anna Dressed In Blood, and don’t want to be massively spoiled, STOP READING.


(and minor spoilers for this one)

I normally hate to spoil earlier books in series, but you can’t talk about this book without knowing that Anna dies – again – sort of – at the end of the first book. In an act of self-sacrifice, she opens a door to hell and dives in. THIS book is about Cas mourning her and deciding to bring her back.

In the course of his quest to get Anna back, we learn about the origins of Cas’s dagger, what really happened to his father, and the mysterious cult behind it all. Like most cultists, they’re dicks.

There’s a lot in this book that could have been expanded on; some things were glossed over for ease of plot, I’m sure, but certain things at the end felt very anti-climactic. More time – ANY time – should have been spent with Cas’s father’s ghost, for instance. There was a lot of build up to it and then – nada. Basically I don’t like the ending of this book at ALL. It was good for most of it – and then I feel like it just fell apart and didn’t deliver on what it had been promising for the entire book.

These are the only two books I’ve read by Kendare Blake, but I have to wonder – does she make a habit of ripping her readers’ hearts out at the ends of her books? Or just this series? Because wow. Both of these books ended in very unexpected ways.

I guess, if you liked the first book, this is probably worthwhile for the history of the dagger alone, but be prepared for a disappointing ending. It’s strong right up until the last couple of chapters, it’s really too bad.

From the cover of Girl of Nightmares:

It’s been months since the ghost of Anna Korlov opened a door to Hell in her basement and disappeared into it, but ghost hunter Cas Lowood can’t move on. 

His friends remind him that Anna sacrificed herself so that Cas could live – not walk around half dead, pining for her. He knows they’re right, but in Cas’s eyes, no living girl he meets can compare to the dead girl he fell in love with.

Now he’s seeing Anna everywhere: sometimes when he’s asleep, and sometimes in waking nightmares. But something is very wrong . . . These aren’t just daydreams. Anna seems tortured, torn apart in new and ever more gruesome ways every time she appears.

Cas doesn’t know what happened to Anna when she disappeared into Hell, but he knows she doesn’t deserve whatever is happening to her now. Anna saved Cas more than once, and it’s time for him to return the favor.

Sunday Funday – Baltimore Book Festival

Today is Day 3 of the Baltimore Book Festival, so I’ve been attending panels and meeting authors and been generally quite busy. After this weekend, things finally slow down for me. We went straight from 9 weeks of Maryland Renaissance Festival to our Halloween party to the Baltimore Book Festival, so I’m about ready for a month of sleep. Too bad we’re running right into the holidays!

I also recently learned about Sirens, a conference held in Denver concentrating on women in fantasy and science fiction, and WOW THAT IS RELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS. A good friend of mine attended this year (I think it was her second year? I’m not positive.) and I REALLY want to go next year, but it’s in Denver. So airfare. (And just flying in general. I hate flying.) And the admission cost is kinda steep, too. But 3/4 of the guests of honor next year are authors I love, and I’ve already read a good chunk of both their 2020 reading challenge and their 2020 suggested reading and it’s just – AAAAH THAT’S MY JAM. I just don’t know if I can make it happen.

But back to the Book Festival! My weekend was absolutely made within the first hour I was there on Friday, when I got to meet K.M. Szpara and get an ARC of his debut novel that’s coming out in March, Docile. I’ve been super excited about this book, and the ARC made this weekend a win no matter what else happened. He was an absolute DELIGHT to talk to, too.

I attended five panels on Friday – Virtual and Augmented Reality, World Building (in the context of Romance novels), A Love For All Hearts (Diversity in Romance), Magic Systems in SFF, and Genre-Bending. I think my favorite was Virtual and Augmented Reality; one of the panelists was Elsa Sjunesson-Henry, a deaf-blind woman who made the point that she lives in Augmented Reality because of her adaptive devices. (This point was revisited on Saturday, but I’ll get to that!) Elsa is one of my new favorite people – I’ve read one of her short stories, just bought the two issues of Uncanny Magazine that she edited (again, more on that later) and followed her on Twitter. She’s one of several authors I have total squishes on after the first two days of the Festival! I just want to pick their brains and read everything they’ve written.

Saturday began with a panel on Books That Renew My Love of Reading, which I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to attend. My TBR does NOT need more titles, but it sure has more now! After that was the panel that was the absolute highlight of the day, Disability in Sci-fi and Fantasy. This panel had a FANTASTIC cast, which included the aforementioned Else Sjunesson-Henry, as well as Victoria Lee, the author of The Fever King (which I finished on Thursday night, I’ll be working on a review this week – short answer, it’s EXCELLENT!). Sunny Moraine, Day Al-Mohamed, and A.T. Greenblatt rounded out the panel. These authors were absolute FIRE. The topics ranged from invisible disabilities to what actually COUNTS as a disability (have you changed your life to accommodate something? That’s a disability) to how far representation in SFF has come and how far it has to go. They discussed Cure Narratives, magic hand-waving, and the lack of disabled people in post-apocalyptic narratives. This panel was absolutely the best one I’ve seen in the first two days. If you’ve read many of my Sunday posts, you probably know by now that I have a couple of autoimmune diseases and my husband is autistic, so this panel hit pretty close to home for us.

Saturday we also attended panels on Beyond the Monarchy (which, unfortunately, was all about monarchy, which I thought was odd, I thought it was going to be about other power structures!), Romantic Suspense, and Dark Fantasy and Horror.

I finally picked up the first of Ruthanna Emrys’ books, Winter Tide, which is Cthulhu-esque fantasy, and Bob Angell’s queer science-fiction romance novel, Best Game Ever. (Which isn’t on Goodreads? ACK!) The bottom three books in the cover photo were giveaways.

Today is another full day of panels, with the Blogger panel at the romance stage, and then everything else over at the SFF stage – Comics & Graphic Novels for Adults, YA and MG SFF, Dystopias, News Media in SFF, and Building Queerer Worlds in SFF. I am very excited about that last one, the list of panelists is FANTASTIC. (Also, I looked up the one unfamiliar name on that panel, Alison Wilgus, and realized we talked to them at some length today with no idea who they were, which I find hilarious. They were pretty cool, and I have now followed them on Twitter! I have followed SO MANY new people on Twitter this weekend!)

Last but DEFINITELY not least, I finally got to meet Lisa from Way Too Fantasy in person – we’ve been friends on Twitter since last Book Festival, so it was really neat to meet her for real! We chatted between panels, and I’m hoping to see her again today.