REVIEW: Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

5/5 stars — incisive and intense, a rallying cry against the dystopia facing Black Americans

I’d like to keep my review short because I’m white and this is a book that speaks to and about the experiences of Black people, so I don’t want to talk over Black readers/reviewers.

I will say that I found this novella an emotional, enjoyable read, one that showcases Tochi Onyebuchi’s storytelling mastery as he maintains the threads of plot and character across a complex timeline. The time skips are a product of both main characters’ supernatural abilities to see scenes from the past (and in some cases, the future), and juxtapose current/fictional events with historical ones. I found the overall effect impactful and well-constructed.

The narrative follows siblings Ella and Kevin (the eponymous ‘Riot Baby,’ born during the Rodney King riots) as Ella embraces her powers to explore their family history and the history of anti-Black violence while Kevin, seeing the hurt his sister’s power can cause, instead falls victim to the chute of gang violence, prison, and parole. The two stay in contact because Ella’s increasingly powerful abilities allow her to spectrally visit Kevin, and Kevin watches from prison as his sister grows stronger, wiser, and angrier the more injustice she witnesses.

Riot Baby is the perfect medley of sci-fi, dystopia, and social commentary in which every third sentence is a quotable gem and Black solidarity and generational anger in the face of racial injustice abound. I appreciated how the book dealt with the conjunction of racism and poverty, as well as racism and misogyny (the last especially evident in the scene where Ella and Kev’s mother is in the hospital giving birth, attended by white medical staff).

The future-dystopia side of the story really comes out once Kev is released from prison in his late twenties. Hoping to escape his past and avoid violating parole and ending up back in jail, he agrees to live in a corporate community where he’s implanted with a tracking chip that allows him to be monitored on a molecular level and remotely dosed with medication. This extension of prison-system corporatization to life after release was terrifying on a conceptual level.

This was a painful read at times, particularly watching Ella and Kev lose their childhoods to violence and racism, but the overall effect was one of hope, of the seeds of revolution receiving a germinating spark through two superpowered individuals and a society that had enough of oppression generations ago. A quote that stayed with me was Ella’s, “They freed the slaves at gunpoint.”

Content warnings: gang violence, child death, police brutality, prison violence, mentions of a mass shooting, attempted suicide

** I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. **