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Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsRiot Baby is a short novel that packs enough fire and fury into its pages to light up a thousand cities. In his first published story for adult audiences, Tochi Onyebuchi introduces us to a pair of super-powered siblings, Ella and Kev Jackson, born into times of turmoil where there seems little future other than a life of turmoil. Kev, in fact, is born in South Central LA on the very day — April 29, 1992, and I can remember it well — of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. As he grows into adulthood, from the streets of South Central to those of Harlem, Kev’s entire life will be circumscribed by a structurally racist system that defines blackness as the enemy by default.

Even before her brother is born, Ella begins displaying signs of strange and unpredictable powers. Some of them she tells no one, such as her ability to see into people’s futures. Others are harder to hide, like the way she deals with the rat infestation in her house by causing their little heads to explode. Their mother just refers to Ella’s powers as “her thing,” but “her thing” isn’t something Ella can control very well, and it’s only exacerbated by the anger and emotion she feels at the injustice she sees in the world. Eventually, in order to keep her family safe, Ella leaves — she simply teleports out of their lives.

From the first, Riot Baby creates immersion into a richly textured world through vivid snapshots of daily life and compassionate attention to character, while the actual structure of the narrative feels like the literary equivalent of freestyling. Kev’s passages are narrated in first person, while Ella’s take third person omniscient. There are no shortage of scenes with great emotional power, scenes that feel effortlessly real in their depiction.

Kev grows up in Harlem, surrounded by his peers getting into the thug life, until his own role in a botched armed robbery gets him sent to Rikers. He’ll end up spending seven years in this grim hellhole, coming to terms with his life choices, and the pain and anger and lack of hope that informed them. Before long, he’s visited by Ella, both physically and psychically. She takes him, through a kind of astral projection, not just to other locations but through windows in time, where he witnesses past events unfold and gains a greater understanding of his own family’s history, a kind of microcosm of the Black American experience.

In its finest moments — and there are so many fine moments — it’s all simply dazzling. But one significant shortcoming of Riot Baby is that, for all that Tochi Onyebuchi gives us such vivid drama, there are holes in the worldbuilding that I would have liked filled in. After Kev is released from Rikers, the country seems to have become a kind of cyberpunk dystopia, with references to people called “augments” and that kind of thing. But it’s only very sketchily rendered. Perhaps the goal here was to show just how new technology will only strengthen the power of the carceral state. But, though I admit I may be responding like a sci-fi nerd to this, I still would’ve liked a lot more detail.

As a story, overall, Riot Baby impresses in almost every other area. Ultimately it asks us to consider what freedom means to each of us. It just so happens that I read and reviewed this story about two years after its release, at a time when people’s ideas about freedom are getting a real workout. Perhaps if being faced with minor inconvenience is all it takes to make you think you’re no longer free, then it might be wise to take this novel’s advice to look outside yourselves, and understand just how oppressive things can be when powerful forces all around you — whether those forces are invading tanks or trigger-happy cops — are aligned to put a halt to your very existence. Spend a little time walking in the shoes of those people, and maybe you’ll begin to understand when they decide it’s time to riot, baby.