REVIEW: Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

I received an uncorrected proof copy of Riot Baby in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Tochi Onyebuchi and Tor.com.

Riot Baby begins in Compton, USA, depicting topics that could have been straight out of an N.W.A song. Racism, police brutality, gang banging, etc… This chapter is presented by a young lady Ella who is one of the two point of view perspectives. At the culmination of the chapter Ella’s mother goes into labour in the midst of a brutal riot and gives birth to her little brother. Kev, the riot baby.

As mentioned, the first of the two point of view perspectives is that of Ella. She has special powers which she refers to as the Thing. She can look at a person and can see visions of their past and future sufferings. She can Travel which means she can disappear to other places, can Shield to make herself invisible, can appear as an astral phantom, can destroy items with her mind… she can even make rats heads explode without looking at them. It is as if she is taking all the anger and despair that she witnesses and is building the emotions up to something that could be cataclysmic. Her views are presented in the third-person perspective.

The second main player is Kev, the titular Riot Baby. His viewpoint is presented in the first-person. He’s an intelligent young black individual who spends a lot of time reading and fixing computers. He’s also street-wise and knows a simple bad decision can equate to death in the hood. His narrative arc is full of depth which is surprising for a tale this short. He ends up being incarcerated for little more than being a young black gentleman. His time in jail is horrendous featuring some notorious and harrowing scenes, it changes him completely, and it fucks up his mind. The only thing that keeps him sort of sane or focused are visits he receives from his sister that are “both mundane and supernatural.”

At 173 pages, this was an intense, occasionally challenging and utterly unique novella. It combines elements of science fiction, dystopian ideals, racism, supernatural powers, change, and oppression but it is ultimately about a close family and their love for each other. In these 173 pages the events that take place cover approximately 28 years. It goes from a nowadays Compton to a dystopian futuristic existence where emotions and choices are essentially taken away from black individuals. During this period Ella spends her whole time watching and drawing in the pain of reliving unjust deaths.

I will admit that I didn’t fully understand a few sections when watching historic events or walking on different plains whilst the characters’ bodies were still alive in the real world. It also switches sporadically occasionally from past, current, future and even point of view perspectives. This isn’t really a negative, I just had to concentrate deeply to fully appreciate the full tale and it’s three-dimensional depth. For me, this was between 3-4 stars up until the final 10 pages which were phenomenal and pushes Riot Baby up to a solid 4-star read. Onyebuchi is a popular YA author but there is no denying that this novella, his first-time releasing adult fiction is extremely dark and graphic in its nature. Certain scenes were nail-biting in their intensity and other occasions were so brutal that if this was a film then they would be the look away from the screen moments.

Riot Baby is a thrilling, intense, nail-biting read that transcends genre and has an ending of biblical proportions. Adult, often extreme, but highly recommended.

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James Tivendale

James reviews fantasy books, is a pretty good pool player and likes the musical Hamilton.