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Riot Baby
by Tochi Onyebuchi

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 22, 2020

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Tochi Onyebuchi had previously published three YA books. Riot Baby is considered his first adult title. It's a novella, published in January of this year, which had been on my wish list since then, but Tor offered it as their free title this month. I'm not sure if it's still available, but if you have an e-reader (or phone/tablet with appropriate app), I highly recommend you sign up for their E-Book of the Month Club. Restricted to the US and Canada though. If it's not still available, refer to the purchase links above.

Kevin Jackson is the riot baby, born in Compton on the night when riots began following the verdict in the Rodney King case. Shortly after that the family moves to Harlem. Kev's mother had been born in Mississippi, later living in Detroit before moving to California. Harlem doesn't prove to be any safer. Even though Kev was smart, an avid reader and good student, he still fell in with others who led him toward illegal activities. He is wrongfully arrested for an attempted armed robbery, and since the family could not afford bail, and court proceedings were continually delayed, he spends an inordinately long time in Riker's. More than eight years, during which time he had several stints in solitary confinement. His older sister Ella visits him in prison, both physically and virtually.

Yes, this is an SF story. Ella has powers. She is telekinetic, precognitive, and can astrally project herself in both time and space. At times she can transfer her visions to Kevin. It is possible Kevin has a minimal amount of those abilities himself, or else Ella is reading his thoughts which are not his own memories, but gathered from others. In one instance when she is at the prison, they touch briefly, she gets Kevin's story of when he served time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is nicknamed Angola for the former plantation nearby. Ella knows he was never there, never participated in a prison rodeo. It's not clear if he believed those were his experiences, or whether he had the ability to read other people's thoughts as Ella could. There are four sections to the book; South Central, Harlem, Riker's, Watts. The latter is where Kev moves after his parole, where he has a guaranteed job and housing. Instead of an ankle monitor, he has a chip implanted in his thumb, which he knows tracks his movements, but later learns it's also how he unlocks his house door, and access other services. Later still, he learns another of its purposes. He is apprenticed to a mechanic/welder, who doesn't just work on cars, he also builds and repairs prosthetics. And other things.

The last section is set in the future, with constant surveillance from flying drones and robotic weapons patrolling the street. Those are just the latest in a long line of ways the establishment has subjugated minority populations, and the story is more than just the pain of one Black family. Through her visions, Ella shows Kevin the conditions in South Central at the time of his birth, as well as earlier and later tragedies; the Oscar Grant murder, events that led to the Tulsa 'Black Wall Street' Massacre. Even their mother's pregnancy that preceded their birth, but which ended in a still-birth due to doctor neglect. It's like X-Men mashed up with The Hate U Give and the recent HBO adaptation of Watchmen. It's brutal, but honest. Angry, but also redemptive. Ella not only astrally travels to these tragic events, she also physically visits several places where her mother once lived. In Detriot she meets the minister of the church she attended, who recalls her as a very devout woman, working long hours as a nurse's aide, also cleaning houses, but never too busy to find time for church and helping others. He remembers something she once said, that she was struggling with "how to fit grace and tribulation into the same cupboard." It's not clear if she was successful, or whether Kevin and Ella can emulate that, but I think they're going to try.

Highly recommended, even though it is not a pleasant read. Now I need to read some of his other work. War Girls looks very interesting.


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Tochi Onyebuchi

January 21, 2020

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