Riot Baby • 2020 • Superhero novella by Tochi Onyebuchi

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
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Holy shit, this novella weighs more than a ton. Consume it at your own risk, but be aware that you’ll have to hold your breath reading through 150 pages. 

Kevin is the titular “Riot Baby”, born in 1992 during the six days Los Angeles riots, after a trial jury acquitted four police officers for beating Rodney King. Mother Ellen relocates with her two children Kevin and Ella to Harlem. 

Ella is the supergirl, she can apply a “Thing” which I interpret sometimes as empathy, precognition, telepathy, and other furious powers.  

 I am the locusts and the frogs and the rivers of blood.

Harlem shows them brutality, police power, drugs, and structural racism. Kev is an intelligent boy who seeks education but is harassed and soon put into prison at Rikers Island, mostly because he is what he is: a black man in the U.S.A.

A large part of the story follows prison procedures in Rikers Island where Ella visits Kev telepathically. It isn’t the last transition that the siblings have to endure. 

This novella has been nominated for this year’s Nebula Award season (check out the list with references to online available stories and my reviews), and I can see why: Kevin’s narration in first-person view exposes the reader to his hopeless struggles against society within and out of the prison. It’s intense to the n-th degree. 

The story alternates between Kevin’s POV and Ella’s tight third-person narration in a kind of collage merging the brutal reality with a bloody supernatural plot. Both scream and cry at the reader about the black community.

So why not five stars? Honestly, I didn’t enjoy it. I can bare the exposure to a harsh society, as exotic as it may be for me as a European, white, cisgender, middle-aged male. That prison part was indeed interesting. But much of the conversation wasn’t accessible for me, as the author used a variation of African-American Vernacular English and slangs from urban American centers (which feels natural and believable like an #ownvoice). The author gives a shit if I understand it or not, he clearly has a target audience which is not me, and sorry me feels excluded.

The other part of missed accessibility lies in my failure to keep up due concentration for the whole text. One cannot skip half sentences, it’s incredibly densely constructed. That’s what I wanted to transport with “hold your breath for 150 pages”. I guess, that this novella is worth and needs a re-read and probably will be better, then.

Until then, I stay with a recommendation for readers interested in an #ownvoice high-brow story featuring a superhero.

Meta: isfdb. Nominated for the Nebula Award.

This entry was posted in Nebula nomination, Science Fiction, Story and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Riot Baby • 2020 • Superhero novella by Tochi Onyebuchi

  1. The premise sounds very interesting, granted, but it’s the execution that sounds problematic, particularly where you say that the author does not seem to care wether readers can connect with the story/characters or not: it does not look like a winning strategy…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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