Why You Need to Read: “Riot Baby”

Riot Baby

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: January 21, 2020

Genre: Speculative Fiction/Contemporary

            The look on her face, that’s what people told me today wasn’t no kind of victory. That when people joke and call me Riot Baby for being born when I was, it ain’t with any kind of affection, but something more complicated. The type of thing old heads and Mama and other people’s parents tell you you won’t understand till you get older, (II, Harlem). 

            Our world is not a utopia, but it’s not a dystopia either. Our world is balanced between the good and the bad, and the beautiful and the ugly. As humanity’s technology emerged with emphasis on the visuals, humanity preferred to use: cameras, camcorders, and videos to capture moments and/or events in life. Although technology is used for selfish reasons, it cannot be denied that we’ve used it in order to capture moments of both the beautiful and the ugly. Yet, it cannot be said that the ugly moments provided elements of truth which details moments of life for all individuals around the world. In the 21st century, this technology serves as a reminder that life is beautiful and ugly due to humanity, and that art imitates life NOT vice versa. 

            Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi is an allegorical narrative about the treatment of “minorities”—specifically Black Americans—in contemporary America. I’m not going to use the sub-genre—dystopia—because it implies, “a very unpleasant imaginary world in…a disastrous future,” (p. 417). Riot Baby focuses on the present, so to categorize it in the dystopia subgenre would be an insult to the many victims of the societal practice. This novella reiterates numerous key moments in America during the last 60 years, most of which there is evidence in the form of both photos and videos. While several outlets of mainstream media and history texts continue to gloss over past and recent events, victims and witnesses know better due to the fear and the knowledge that such events: Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Colin Kapernick, McKinley, Charleston, etc., can and will happen again. Riot Baby is Childish Gambino’s, “This Is America,” presented from a similar perspective in a different format. 

            There are two protagonists, but the story starts with Ella who is around 7-years-old. She lives with her mother in South Central Los Angeles. The year is 1992 and her mother is pregnant. Ella is a very perspective child. One of the reasons for this is because Ella has ESP abilities of an empath and powers that rival Scarlet Witch from X-Men. One day after school, as the Rodney King Verdict is announced, Ella’s mother goes into labor and they have to get to a hospital. After her brother, Kevin, is born, Ella begs her mother to have them move to Harlem believing her rage, and her abilities to feel everyone else’s rage, won’t be as volatile on the East Coast as it is on the West. Several years later, Kev spends his time after school hanging out with his friends outside of a bodega on a street corner, avoiding the notice of both the police and his mother and sister. Some things are easier said than done because Ella cannot control neither her “gift” nor her rage, and Kev can’t do anything to stop himself from becoming another statistic in American society. Soon, Kevin is in jail and Ella “jumps” all over the world observing the ways other people live. The brother becomes indifferent and the sister becomes even more enraged.

            As Kev serves his (exaggeratedly long) sentence in Rikers State Penitentiary, Ella experiences rodeos in Louisiana, horse races in Belmont, the shooting of Sean Bell, the police “raid” at a pool party in McKinley, Texas and the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Kev, in his youth, becomes worn down in prison and Ella becomes so angry that she seeks advice from her mother and her mother’s acquaintances. Kev is comfortable with the “life” provided for him in prison and on parole. Ella explains to him how both are restrictive forms of freedom, and the only way to achieve freedom is to act on their anger. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers witness the events and the treatment Ella and Kev experience throughout their lives and the helplessness they feel over and over again. From Kev’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness, readers witness how Black Men are treated in America’s systematic racism from racial profiling to prison (and juvenile detention) to parole. From Ella’s point-of-view, readers experience the world beyond Black America, and moments from the past, including the ones her mother lived through. Ella’s stream-of-consciousness (and empathic powers) allows for readers (and Ella) to feel all of the emotions everyone else is expressing, which leaves her (and us) wondering why more people are not upset with this treatment within society. Given the pace and the moments in U.S. history and society, both Ella and Kev are reliable narrators. 

            The style Tochi Onyebuchi uses for Riot Baby is a social commentary of recent events told with the lenses of speculative fiction. The mood in this novella is rage from mistreatment and oppression in a society. The author makes several references referring to race relations in the U.S.: Rodney King and the L.A. Riots, Sean Bell, Charleston, McKinley, Spike Lee, Black women and childbirth, George Washington Carver, the Confederate Flag, hoodies, neo-Nazis, music—particularly rap, etc. The tone reflects the way one should feel about all of the mistreatment Ella learns and that it is okay to feel anger towards this mistreatment, the same mistreatment which converted her brother into a docile servant of American society. Using superpowers, the author illustrates what will eventually happen if these practices continue.  

            Riot Baby will appeal to fans of both speculative fiction (i.e. comics, manga and graphic novels) and history (i.e. social commentary). Systematic racism continues to be an issue throughout the world, and fans who want to read about this issue in a different style of writing should read this book. Anyone who has read: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the MARCH Trilogy by John Lewis will appreciate the themes and the message found within Riot Babythe most.  

            Riot Baby is a parable (“a very short narrative about human beings presented…with a general thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to his audience,”) about systematic racism and its practices throughout America (p. 9). Both the story and the title emphasizes that anger continues to build up due to mistreatment, oppression and fear and it’s all felt by one and many. Tochi Onyebuchi presents a believable story about the risks society takes when they ignore the harsh practices and restrictions of a group of people. Riot Baby uses the concept of mutant powers in order to deliver another approach to contemporary American society.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

                                                                        Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Tenth ed., Wadsworth, 2005. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Kingdom of Copper”

The Daevabad Trilogy #2: The Kingdom of Copper

By: S.A. Chakraborty

Published: February 21, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction

            She shook her head. “Whatever the consequences, Dara acted to protect my daughter from a fate I fought for decades. I cannot fault him for that. And if you think Ghassan wasn’t looking for a reason to crack down on the Daevas the instant a Nahid and Afshin strolled through the gates of Daevabad, you clearly do not know him at all.” She gave them another sharp look. “Tearing each other apart is not why we are here,” (4, Dara). 

            As I mentioned in my review of The City of Brass, the first book in The Daevabad Trilogy, this is a series in which the characters and the world are influenced by Middle Eastern history, culture and folklore. Yet, the story of political power, corruption and struggle is a universal theme in stories and an issue within our world. The Kingdom of Copper expands both the influences and the themes in the magical world S.A. Chakraborty presents to us.

            The story takes place 5 years after Dara’s—short for Darayavahoush e-Afshin—death and resurrection, Nahri’s forced marriage to Prince Muntadhir, and Prince Alizayd’s—Muntadhir’s younger brother—exile to Am Gezira for plotting against his father, King Ghassan al Qahtani. Dara has been resurrected by Manizheh, Nahri’s mother—who faked her death in order to protect herself and her family—so that he can assist her in leading a rebellion against King Ghassan for his treachery and in order to reclaim the throne that was held by the Nahids—the ancestors and tribe of Nahri and Manizheh. Nahri is now wife to Muntadhir, the king’s son and heir, is the new Banu Nahid, or royal healer, and is trapped in the gilded cage of the palace with no one she can trust. She uses her healing gifts and her desire to be a physician in order to cope with her current scenario and unwanted status. Prince Ali has settled in a small community in an oasis in Am Gezira away from his father’s assassins and members of his mother’s family (who want him on the throne). During his exile he learns how to control the abilities gifted to him by the marid, water spirits, on the night he slew Dara. All three protagonists are in scenarios based on the poor choices they made 5 years ago. They all have to live with the consequences of their actions and find other methods to achieve their original goals. Dara, Nahri and Ali develop further into maturity and they must find a way to maneuver through the unrest between ruling classes and amongst the six tribes of the djinn. The complexity of their situations mirror the complexity of their characteristics. 

            The plot continues from where The City of Brass left off. King Ghassan continues to subdue his subjects—mostly the shafit (those of mixed human and djinn heritage)—to harsh treatment and brutal punishments for minor offenses. Ghassan believes with Ali exiled for his betrayal, the death of the last of the Afshins (a.k.a. Dara), and his dominance over Nahri and the supporters of the Nahids he’ll remain in control. However, the king’s enemies have learned how to work underground and soon of the king’s subjects will revolt against the descendants of the rebel who overthrew the Nahids from power. This plot was the subplot in the first book, and it proves how relevant it is to this story’s narrative. There are two main subplots. The first regards Dara and his failure to protect Nahri is the latest of his long list of failures. Due to his imprisonment before meeting Nahri, Dara hasn’t had time to deal with the consequences of his actions that led to the death of his family. Not to mention, Dara’s memories are becoming clearer and he’s starting to remember the events that led to his actions from centuries ago, and those memories are causing him to question whether or not his alliance with Manizheh will lead to similar consequences. The second subplot focuses on the concept of identity and what it means for both Nahri and Ali. Nahri knows she is descended from the Nahids, but she’s not sure what that means. She doesn’t trust anyone in Daevabad, so promises of better things to come by the priests and the other healers means nothing to her. At the same time, Nahri stumbles over information as to how and what her ancestors were really like during their reign in Daevabad and what the Daeva priests expect from her. Meanwhile, Ali learns that he has more abilities than the ones “gifted” to him by the marids. Once again, Ali must find a way to keep his family safe while protecting the denizens of Daevabad from his father’s tyranny. These subplots move along with the plot at an appropriate rate providing development of the plot and the characters, and a way to continue the world-building left off in the first book. 

            The narrative continues from the points-of-view of Dara, Nahri and Ali. Once again, the P.O.V.s are 3rd person limited narrative; meaning they know only what is happening around them at that moment, which means the narrative is told in real time. Readers are aware of each protagonist’s thoughts thanks to their stream-of-consciousness, and because there are moments when one protagonist knows more than the other two at random intervals. All three protagonists are reliable narrators and they provide readers with everything that is going on with all of the characters—including moments of foreshadowing—which, can be followed easily due to the narrative’s sequence.

            The style S.A. Chakraborty uses continues from The City of Brass to The Kingdom of Copper. The history and the folklore of the Middle East—during the Ottoman Rule—continues to influence the story, and the themes of tyrannical rule and rebellion and its endless cycle within the story. The mood in this book is one of tension brought on by corruption and mistreatment of people and the fighting amongst the tribes and the growth of that tension. The tone in this story is how someone should react when tensions are to the point where unrest is coming and how someone should prepare themselves for it regardless of how others want them to act. Trusting one’s instincts is the only way someone can hope to survive when unrest is inevitable. 

            The appeal towards The Kingdom of Copper buildup from the first book. Readers and critics alike praised the author for continuing her fantasy story using her method of storytelling, which led to compliments about the story’s structure by a few readers. Now that the stakes have been raised, fans can only hope for more from S.A. Chakraborty. The critical acclaim will keep the book in popularity and in the fantasy canon. And, fans will be eager to read the story’s conclusion in The Empire of Gold when it is released. 

             The Kingdom of Copper is a strong sequel in The Daevabad Trilogy. The pacing of the world-building and the conflicts go at a more appropriate rate this time, and the input of a realm’s forgotten history makes the story more realistic. The complexity of the characters make them all the more tragic, yet lovable. This novel makes the upcoming conclusion to this trilogy to be very promising. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5)!