Riot Baby: A short, intense, emotionally draining novel

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRiot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRiot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby (2020), a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Novella, is a mind-expanding story about growing up Black in America. Kevin, the titular “riot baby,” was born in South Central Los Angeles during the riots of 1992 which were sparked by the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King after a traffic stop turned into a high-speed chase.

Before Kevin is born, Onyebuchi sets the scene by introducing Ella, Kev’s big sister. As a child, before the family moves to Harlem, we see Ella witnessing gang activity as she rides the school bus through South Central Los Angeles. On a day when it’s too hot to be inside, we see her watching a woman she calls her grandmother sweep bullet casings off the driveway as a pitbull barks next door and gangbangers loiter around the corner. Ella has a “Thing”: she has a vague sense of things that are going to happen to people in the future, and she knows that the future is not bright for boys who live in her neighborhood.

Next, we meet Kevin as a teenager – a smart, bookish boy who has a crush on a girl who works in a local market. Kev has plans to go to college and to develop a meaningful career, but it’s hard to stay on the right path when you live in a neighborhood where the cops are constantly monitoring you, questioning you, assuming you’re up to no good, and pushing you around. The resentment is palpable and the ensuing friction often leads to minor offenses which begin to accumulate and escalate.

Eventually Kevin ends up in jail on Rikers Island, an abusive, soul-destroying place where humans go to have their hopes for the future completely extinguished. After several years in prison, Kev is paroled to an experimental program that at first seems luxurious but turns out to be just another type of prison.

By this time Ella, who has spent years traveling, training, and thinking about all of the injustice she sees, has developed a bevy of supernatural powers, and she plans to use them to blow up the system that has ruined her brother.

Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi

Riot Baby is a short, intense novel that left me emotionally drained. The subject matter itself is challenging and so is the novella’s format. Onyebuchi uses multiple viewpoints, a non-linear narrative, and occasional sketchy, abstract scenes that evoke a feeling of impending doom.

I understand Onyebuchi’s purpose for Ella (she’s a Moses type of figure), and I loved her fierce protectiveness of her family, as well as her insights about race disparities in policing and the judicial system, but some of her scenes are confusing, and her immense power seems limitless. I would have preferred to read Kevin’s important story in a non-fantasy version.

Riot Baby is at its best when we’re with Kevin, seeing him and his friends being constantly monitored and hassled by the police and, because the assumption that they’re criminals makes them eventually become criminals, falling victim to the racism that inhabits all of the systems they encounter. As a white middle-aged soccer mom who has always lived either in a suburb or on/near a college campus, I know that black people have endured these indignities, threats, and crimes for hundreds of years, but the experience of feeling this harassment, objectification, and lack of empathy through Kevin’s POV was meaningful to me and something I’ll take away from Riot Baby.

Blackstone Audio’s edition of Riot Baby is narrated by Tochi Onyebuchi himself – an excellent decision by the author and publisher. It’s less than four hours long – a quick read that I recommend. Kevin’s all-too-familiar story is one that should be read, especially by those of us who have not lived it ourselves.

Published in 2020. Ella has a Thing. She sees a classmate grow up to become a caring nurse. A neighbor’s son murdered in a drive-by shooting. Things that haven’t happened yet. Kev, born while Los Angeles burned around them, wants to protect his sister from a power that could destroy her. But when Kev is incarcerated, Ella must decide what it means to watch her brother suffer while holding the ability to wreck cities in her hands. Rooted in the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is as much an intimate family story as a global dystopian narrative. It burns fearlessly toward revolution and has quietly devastating things to say about love, fury, and the black American experience. Ella and Kev are both shockingly human and immeasurably powerful. Their childhoods are defined and destroyed by racism. Their futures might alter the world.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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3 comments

  1. Zina /

    OMG! Two of my sons were born during this time. I lived down the street form where Reginal Denny was attacked and volunteered in the community before, during, and after the riots.

    I’ll be reading this.

    FYI:I know of someone who has a similar story with a Moses type character. Yikes.

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