“Riot Baby bursts at the seams of story with so much fire, passion and power that in the end it turns what we call a narrative into something different altogether.”—Marlon James
Rooted in foundational loss and the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is both a global dystopian narrative an intimate family story with quietly devastating things to say about love, fury, and the black American experience.
Ella and Kev are brother and sister, both gifted with extraordinary power. Their childhoods are defined and destroyed by structural racism and brutality. Their futures might alter the world. When Kev is incarcerated for the crime of being a young black man in America, Ella—through visits both mundane and supernatural—tries to show him the way to a revolution that could burn it all down.
Onyebuchi creates a dystopia portrait of modern American in Riot Baby. Kev, one of the two protagonists in Riot Baby, is born to a single mom in 1992 Los Angeles during the height of the Rodney King riots, hence the name Riot Baby. Kev was born into a time that explodes with violence in his childhood violence follows him, and as an adult, Kev is incarcerated at Rikers for eight years. Again his life swirls with anger and violence. The ironic and well-done part of Kev’s character is that even though he was born, lived, and survived through significant violence, Kev himself, does not come off as a violent person. He is a person who reacts to violence and protects himself.
The other major character and protagonist of the story is Ella, Kev’s older sister as much as Kev is mired in violence and its effects, Ella is mired in her power. She sees much more than the surface of events. She can touch the very soil of the land after some event or act of violence and feel the pain and emotions of those affected. There is a reason why she has this power, isn’t there? While Kev is in prison, Ella visits him both physically and psychically. They do not lose touch and are very close even though Kev is incarcerated.
One of the most impactful parts of this story is the dichotomy that Onyebuchi writes events with. On one side, both Kev and Ella are very gifted and powerful; they have supernatural abilities. This could have been the main focus of the story, but it isn’t. On the other side, racism and violence run rampant and have shaped their worlds in dystopias. These abilities do not save them from the vagaries of life. While each of the sides of this story is important, their powers and society in general, they are instead written to help develop the other.
In lesser hands, this story would have been challenging to make it through. It is dark and introspective, full of moments of pain and is unflinching from detailing the misery humans can rain down on others. However, in Onyebuchi’s hands, this story has a vein of hope and ends on a note of possibility for the future.
I think it will be a book that people will be talking about in the coming year and is worth a reader’s time.
Riot Baby is speculative fiction at its finest.