• gwen

Review: Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

TW/CW: police brutality, gun violence, institutionalized racism, mention of suicide and attempted suicide, mention of physical and sexual assault, graphic recounting of violent incidents, childbirth scene, mention of PTSD


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.


I purchased this book based on a recommendation after my short book recommendations. I didn't know too much about it, but I knew it was short and it sounded a bit sci-fi, a bit fantastical, meaning a bit outside my comfort zone. It's short (173 pages), so why not?

This is a story about hatred and injustice just as much as it is about siblings Ella and Kev and their love for one another. Kev, born amidst the chaos of the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles is the sort of character who's often reduced to a statistic. He's young, he's black, he's in prison — while his sister Ella is the one who wields mysterious, terrifying magical powers. Ella's story line might seem like it leans towards the chosen one trope, but Onyebuchi went a different route. Instead he focused on what Ella couldn't do, in this case save her brother. While the story initially focuses on Ella and her abilities later it refocuses on Kev and his experiences of police brutality and incarceration.

While I can recommend Riot Baby for it's unflinching look at racism, police brutality, incarceration, and power, I had a hard time reading and fully understanding the speculative fiction nature of the story. Too many times I found myself thinking, "what am I reading?" and not enough time sinking into the story and feeling the pain and message the author was trying to convey.

Despite it's minor pitfalls it does demand and inspire a revolution.

Rating: ★★★