Set the World on Fire: “Riot Baby” Book Review
It’s difficult to adequately describe Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi’s adult debut. It’s a unique mix of fantasy, science fiction, and dystopia that is utterly unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s 173 pages of gut punches that will challenge the preconceptions of people like me, who grew up in the same country but a totally different world from its two protagonists.
Riot Baby is the story of siblings Ella and Kev. Ella is graced with a Thing, vaguely defined supernatural powers that seem like they contain whatever Onyebuchi wanted them to. She can read people’s minds and see their memories, but she can also astral project and teleport, as well as having telekinesis (and the ability to start fires).
Kev is the doomed younger brother, born among the hatred, frustration, and violence of the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict. Gifted in a different way than his sister, Kev is ultimately drawn into the violent world of his peers. He ends up in Rikers after an armed robbery attempt and spends the better part of a decade in prison.
I feel almost like an imposter, reviewing a book that is about black anger and vengeance, but then, that is the point of books like Riot Baby. If people do not seek out media told from a different perspective than their own, how can they ever hope to open their eyes to the experiences of others? I’m not unaware of the plight facing black Americans, but at the same time, I can never truly understand what they go through, because I will never find myself in the same position.
Ella and Kev are angry – rightfully, justifiably so. Angry at a world that does not care about them, a world that locks them up and dismisses their pain. This book is a journey into not only their lives, but the lives of countless other black individuals this country has failed. The book builds on decades of violence by not only referencing well-known events like the Charleston church shooting, but also the lesser known (but no less important) crimes such as the death of Sean Bell.
It isn’t until later in the book that I realized this was an alternate reality. The fantasy elements are introduced early, with Ella’s abilities, but the science fiction and dystopian elements are peppered in as you go along. I think I was about halfway through the book when I realized that I was reading a very different genre than I thought.
Onyebuchi weaves together past, present, and future effortlessly. The world-building is fantastic. The characters are richly developed, with an incredibly realistic dynamic. Despite the relatively bleak tone of the book, there is still an undercurrent of hope. He packs so much into such a small book.
This is not an easy book to read. It’s violent and visceral and intense. It pulls no punches and does not shy away from describing the realities of the incarcerated. But I think it is a necessary book to read. It uses magical realism to emphasize the oppression and racism that are embedded into the very fabric of the United States. It’s an alternate future, but it could so easily become this one.
With February being Black History Month, find a way to put Riot Baby on your to-read list.
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi is published by Tor.com and will be available January 21 wherever books are sold.
*I was provided with a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.*
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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