“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” is the refrain of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Small Axe,” plucked from the roots of a Jamaican proverb. Though the popular song was released in 1973, the parable goes much further back. A confidently sung confrontation of empire, it is a semaphore of Caribbean resistance, a clear-eyed chant in the face of the insurmountable monolith: a message that a series of small cuts can chop up Babylon.
British novelist Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s debut, Ace of Spades, presents a pair of Black teenage survivors wielding small axes against institutional oppression, their instruments hewn thornily, and not without significant trauma. Here’s a world that juts its narrative chin out in the hallways of Gossip Girl, meeting a more cerebral Riverdale where Josie, not Archie, might conceivably be the main character. Inevitable, too, are comparisons to the film Get Out, Jordan Peele’s 2017 masterpiece of gaslighting dread, a tableau in which a Black man progressively realizes he’s trapped in a psychological and topographic hellscape engineered by his girlfriend’s white racist family. Indeed, this novel’s primary selling point pitches it as a Gossip Girl/Get Out mashup: while the comparison is eye-catchingly apt, the world herein, evoked in crisp prose and a plot that churns one’s viscera with dread, needs no comparative props to wield its impressive agency.
Niveus Private Academy is a bastion of academic privilege, and its sole pair of Black students—our novel’s protagonists, Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo—are conscious of how fortunate they are to attend. Poised on the cusp of graduation and eager to enroll in Juilliard and Yale respectively, stoic Devon and sharply confident Chiamaka are hungry for all the advantages a Niveus education can confer.
The school is an architectural behemoth “made up of fancy, dark wooden walls, marble floors and huge glass windows. The exterior is old and haunted-looking and the interior is new and modern, reeking of excessive wealth.” In these halls of dual opposition, where modernity and antiquity coalesce to ooze exclusion, not encouragement, Devon and Chiamaka are aware of their rare status, each differently motivated to gain all they can before they graduate. Yet Niveus has other plans for them, in the form of Aces, an anonymous blackmailer who broadcasts text messages of their private misdeeds to the entire school population. How can even the best and brightest Black students keep their heads up in a sea of judgmental whiteness?
Ace of Spades clocks in at nearly five hundred pages, but feels like a swiftly finessed read, a book that dares you to consume it in one rapt sitting. Brief, tautly-plotted chapters swap between Chiamaka and Devon’s streams of consciousness, peppered by Aces’ menacing communiques set in a distinct font. So intentionally jarring are Aces’ poisoned notes that the visual effect of anticipating them provokes unease, a sense of growing calamity that mounts as the dramatic tension ratchets ever higher towards a climactic showdown. Genre-wise, this debut declares itself a thriller from the first chapter, wherein seeds of discord are sown in Niveus’ welcome assembly to its returning students. From the outset, the reader is catapulted into a world she knows to be not quite right; much of the fine structural work of the novel lies in germinating the products of storytelling suspense at every turn. All this remains housed in action that moves at a clipping pace, which must be reckoned with as an accomplishment since much of the conflict is interior, unspooling in the students’ minds before they commit to plans of retaliation, retribution, or a desperate quest for justice.
In a concrete sense, the marketing that shrouds this debut unhinges its capacity to surprise a reader conceptually, at least at the outset. The blurbs’ litanies of glowing references to Peelian cinematography, radical whodunnit fervor, and schoolyard-setting intrigue, establish a cannily dark academia, long before one has a chance to let the novel speak for itself. Once a wade-through of effusive marketing is accomplished, however, and Àbíké-Íyímídé is allowed to get to work, the world emerges as promised on its menacingly glossy tin: Niveus Private Academy is a treacherous locale, a sinister breeding ground for racist tropes reminiscent of some unholy Lovecraftian-Sunnydale-Confederate mashup.
The sensory accretion of unheimlich evil is commendably wrought here, in passages that move from subtle details of flickering black spade motifs, to flashes of Guy Fawkes-masked spies skittering out of the protagonists’ line of sight, but not before snapping incriminating photographs in mostly-abandoned playgrounds. As with the most hair-raising horror offerings, the reader wants to shout out warnings in real time to both central characters, cautioning them each against unwise decisions: Don’t trust him! Stop talking to her! No, why are you going there alone?
Queerness is central, not adjacent or auxiliary, to the lives of our narrators. Devon, who has understood his gayness to be the truth about himself for several years, grapples with his religious mother’s potential discovery of his sexuality. The physical consequences of existing as a queer Black youth have been meted out to him in brutal beatings by former playmates; his dealings with lovers, Black and white, are tinged with shame and self-remonstration. Yet Àbíké-Íyímídé populates Devon’s queer identity with moments of pleasure and sensual generosity, too. When allowing himself to fall into the arms of his Black lover, their lovemaking is described as gentle, attentive, open to care and warmth, even in the midst of an ongoing crisis. This jars existing tropes of Black queer cisgendered male intimacy as perennially rough, aggressive, and brutish. The novel’s delineations of queerness are far more productively focused, less interested in queerness as spectacle, more concerned with the multifarious facets of a Black queer teen life.
Chiamaka’s same-gendered desire, though less productively pitched towards her wellbeing, is nonetheless allowed to embody a full and complex awareness of self. Indeed, the fact of her sensual liaison with a person who proves to be invested in Chiamaka’s demise should signal – to put it bluntly – a reality check. This narrative choice, aligning our female-identified protagonist’s bisexual identity with the persistent possibility of romantic danger, feels like Àbíké-Íyímídé’s nod to as real a world as any we currently inhabit. The message couldn’t be made plainer: queer love is also love that can be violated by those loving us from within.
Institutional racism’s attacks on the autonomy of Blackness are sharply revealed throughout Ace of Spades, particularly through a close lens on Chiamaka’s strivings towards self-perceived excellence. “I don’t straighten my hair because I hate it,” she owns to herself, following an electric malfunction during which she cannot press her natural hair into submission, “I straighten it because everyone else hates it for me.” From sleeking her capacious curls, to curating romantic relationships and facades within Niveus, to actively trading on a public perception of herself as mean, inaccessible, and beyond reprove, Chiamaka’s studied terraforming of her body and spirit signals an unbearable pressure to conform to whiteness’ expectations of her as a scholar, a woman, and a young leader. The author depicts this unsustainable masking with rigor: a parallel emerges between the Guy Fawkes masks the white supremacists wear to carry out their crimes, set against the non-tangible carapace Chiamaka must don daily to enter Niveus’ sanctum. To exist in a space predicated by racism’s superstructures, the novel shows, is to abandon or abdicate one’s true face.
Though Blackness is under constant threat in this world, as it is in the real world, one of the novel’s most striking achievements is in its claiming space for Black joy despite suffering. Devon’s home, beset by poverty and instability, is nonetheless depicted as a space where tenderness can yet reign: “In this home of worn leather sofas, tabletops with cracked edges, mismatched chairs and exposed pipes, there is so much love.” It is love, not resentment or bitterness, that fuels Devon’s illegal drug hustle when his mother is desperately in need of funds. Devon’s love for his two younger brothers is similarly depicted in the most wholesome of terms. Innocent children in his eyes, they are mercifully unconstrained by the limitations Devon has himself experienced emotionally, sexually, psychologically. In one of the novel’s most moving exchanges, Chiamaka’s Nigerian mother explains to her the origins and significance of her name:
“Chiamaka means god is beautiful and Adebayo, from my father, means she who came in a joyful time. … My mother was Igbo and my father was Yoruba. I felt lucky growing up to have that mix of such rich cultures, and I wanted you to feel that too. I wanted you to know that when I call your name, Chiamaka, I’m saying, my daughter is beautiful, and smart, and brings me so much joy.”
Chiamaka, whose name is frequently shortened in faux affection to Chi, by her white classmates, feels the resonance of her full name differently from that point forward. The exchange with her mother acts as a fulcrum, arming her with a reserve of tenacity to face the novel’s mounting distresses. There is solidity and permanence, the book advocates through exposition, in what a person or place is called, for good or ill. By equipping her characters with hard-won moments of familial and romantic succor, Àbíké-Íyímídé fortifies them for their ultimate battle against pernicious injustice, against Niveus, an institute whose name itself is etymologically synonymous with whiteness.
Occasionally, pedestrian approaches to language and expression stutter the smooth surface of the highly competent worldbuilding and character development on display. Early on, Chiamaka declares that this graduating year at Niveus “will make all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile.” In what ought to be an emotionally resonant moment, the flat declaration of Devon saying, “boys like me don’t get happy endings,” robs the scene of potential gravitas and heft. The language, too, employed by the auxiliary white characters reveals the underpinnings of their ingrained racism but leaves underexplored opportunities to hone the intricacies of their revulsion.
Jamie’s sexual fetishizing of Chiamaka, for example, is one such vacant scene. In the final confrontation between the erstwhile best friends, the reader is told, rather than shown, that his voice drips with venom; disappointingly he goes no further than calling Chiamaka a whore and labeling her ‘easy’, stripping the plot frame of more nuanced navigations into potential white cisgendered male attraction/revulsion complexes regarding Black women. There are notable, if not numerous, similarly empty moments scattered throughout the novel: spaces in which routine exposition, in the vein of ‘this happened and then that happened as a result of it’ robs the rooms of richer plotting.
Despite this, Ace of Spades darkly gleams in its examination of what is perhaps its trump card: betrayal. Devon and Chiamaka’s sustained mental decline under the onslaught of gaslighting, microaggressions, false friendships, staged public shaming, cerebral torture, and physical violence, acquire the effects of real-life suffering. There is no doubt from the reader’s vantage that this deadly game, in which the symbology of the ace of spades card acts as a harbinger of death, is one played in actuality across our own world. Though the novel cedes some anchoring ground by making its geographical setting deliberately opaque —it’s never named, identified only in passing references to New York and a nearness to the ocean that’s relevant for Devon’s character growth—a choice that feels intentional. The author is signaling to us that in any well-appointed enclave, suburb or school district of the United States, these brutalities might be unfolding, masked in the machinery of different games, each with legacies looping all the way back to Confederacy and the abolition of slavery. There’s some by-the-numbers historical compression wrought up in this handling, and certain passages feel like Chiamaka and Devon are acting as encyclopedic mouthpieces for AP History, but the point remains keenly felt: Aces are more real than most might think.
In a young adult literary arena beset by active authorial betrayals, namely all the ways in which J.K. Rowling has disappointed legions of her LGBTQIA+ readers, the stage is more than ready for the advent of Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé. Own Voices narratives are not cute affectations or embellishments of the book industry to sell more copies—they are as vital to young people’s understanding of themselves as any arm of a holistic, life-giving education. Ace of Spades commits itself passionately to that education, forging a space for Black queer youth to incontestably say: yes, I am presented here, in the complexity, variety, and singularity of my existence. Thanks to a vigorous publicity campaign, and a massive global readership, this novel feels poised not only to extend existing conversations about Black queerness, Black trauma and Black joy, but to kick down forbidding doors where such dialogues are actively discouraged to show a full hand of cards aimed at confronting all the injustices the heart can face, must face, and will face. From this firmament of small axes, who knows what future poisoned forests of empire might one day fall?