Rooted in foundational loss and the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is both a global dystopian narrative an intimate family story with quietly devastating things to say about love, fury, and the black American experience.
Ella and Kev are brother and sister, both gifted with extraordinary power. Their childhoods are defined and destroyed by structural racism and brutality. Their futures might alter the world. When Kev is incarcerated for the crime of being a young black man in America, Ella—through visits both mundane and supernatural—tries to show him the way to a revolution that could burn it all down.
Warnings: police brutality, gun violence, institutionalized racism, mention of suicide and attempted suicide, mention of physical and sexual assault, graphic recounting of violent incidents, childbirth scene, mention of PTSD
NOTE: Not a YA novel
Riot Baby was a mixed bag for me – emotionally, it was a bulls-eye, with a very clear view on what it wanted to say and what it wanted to evoke, but in a narrative sense, it was confusing. It is about two siblings – Kev and Ella, and takes place from a little before Kev’s birth to his present, and it is not until two-thirds of the book that you realize that part of it has futuristic elements.
Anyway, back to the beginning – we meet Ella, who is gifted with her Thing, which includes everything from telekinesis, reading pasts and futures, reading thoughts, astral projection, traveling and shielding, and Kev, who is her younger brother, and doesn’t show signs of powers like hers. Seeing their story, in third person for Ella and first person for Kev, we see them growing up in a violent neighborhood in a country that doesn’t care for their lives, and in Ella’s case her anger and her uncontrolled powers are a dangerous mix that Kev tries to steer clear of. Fast forward a few years, he is in prison and she visits him, while also doing her Thing and working on it. Fast forward some more years, and even after Kev’s on parole, he realizes that the outside is not very different from the inside and is just a variation on it. Ella, meanwhile, has been gathering her anger to sharpen it to a purpose.
The thing about the writing is that the sentences are sometimes winding and difficult to read (in a reading comprehension way, not content matter), scenes are all disjointed and without much narrative flow. Suddenly you are propelled who knows how much time further, and you have to discern from the clues how much time has passed and how they got there. I also wish the relationship between them was explored a bit more, as Ella’s reminding Kev towards the end, when he wished to forget seemed like a complicated scene that needed more in it. However, the book is not as much about the characters or the details of the sci-fi elements, as much as it is about rage gathering in Ella over centuries of violence being meted out, as she can see every incident and know what exactly happened. It recalls some key incidents and Black people who were killed by police brutality, and also talks about how Black women are treated by the medical system, how danger to them is ignored. The story works through Kev and Ella than being about them, and recalls injustice and discrimination, both past and present, and how in the guise of betterment, different types of cages are still being constructed around Black people. Slavery ends but another kind of indenture begins in the form of incarceration; incarceration is reduced, but another form of indenture begins in the form of Sponsored communities. The book is very good at getting its point across in a novella length, that explores so much of the past and present of American history through a Black lens.
While a bit difficult to read through, Riot Baby makes a stunning case for a revolution.
Is it diverse? both main characters are Black; Kev was incarcerated and his PoV deals with incarceration and the trauma from it
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from TOR, via Netgalley.
Other books by the author
Releases on January 21, 2020