What would you get if you fed an AI 10,000 words of antiracism books, “deconstructing whiteness” seminars and the script of that Karen movie trailer and then told it to write a YA thriller?
You’d get this book. This book is what you’d get.
About the Book
Title: Ace of Spades
Author: Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Genre: YA, mystery/thriller, contemporary
Rating: 1/5 stars
Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):
“An incendiary and utterly compelling thriller with a shocking twist that delves deep into the heart of institutionalized racism, from an exceptional new YA voice. Welcome to Niveus Private Academy, where money paves the hallways, and the students are never less than perfect. Until now. Because anonymous texter, Aces, is bringing two students’ dark secrets to light. Talented musician Devon buries himself in rehearsals, but he can’t escape the spotlight when his private photos go public. Head girl Chiamaka isn’t afraid to get what she wants, but soon everyone will know the price she has paid for power. Someone is out to get them both. Someone who holds all the aces. And they’re planning much more than a high-school game…“
This is one of the most poorly-written YA books I have read for a long time.
Almost none of the plot of this book really makes sense. It attempts an allegory of institutionalized racism, but the storyline is ridiculous and full of plot holes and the social commentary is so heavy-handed it borders on satirical.
It tries to talk about bias and privilege, but the message seems to be that all white people, or at least the rich ones, are always villainously scheming about how to ruin the lives of minorities.
I also have about 50 unanswered questions about how on earth the logic of this book is supposed to work. After the halfway point, nothing is explained adequately.
WARNING: This review is full of spoilers after this point, so if you have not read the book and plan to, I would click off now.
The “All White People Are Racist and Evil” Messaging
To be very clear before I get into this review: I am absolutely not attempting to claim that racism does not exist in the United States. It very definitely does, and I think it’s extremely important to have books that explore this.
A thought-provoking novel about racism and how it manifests in the world of elite private schooling along with good representation for Black and LGBTQ+ teens could be great social commentary and a worthwhile read. But Ace of Spades is not that book.
At best, it’s simply poorly-written. At worst, it’s straight propaganda.
If you subscribe to the idea that all white people are racist from birth, you might agree with what this book pushes. But if you think people are individuals with vastly different upbringings, no group of people can be generalized as “inherently racist” and no race is a monolith, then perhaps you won’t.
“‘I don’t trust white people like you do. I obviously don’t think they are all murderers, but I think they are all racist... racism is a spectrum and they all participate in it in some way. They don’t all have white hoods or call us mean things; I know that. But racism isn’t just about that—it’s not about being nice or mean. Or good versus bad. It’s bigger than that. We’re all in this bubble being affected by the past. The moment they decided they got to be white and have all the power and we got to be Black and be at the bottom, everything changed… Some might even treat you good, like an owner might treat a pet.‘”
And yes: almost every single white person in the book is completely evil.
Even if you do believe that every white person has unconscious bias by virtue of being white and growing up in the West, you can’t possibly believe they all are scheming against Black people every day… right? Because that’s what the book purports.
Around halfway through the book, the two main characters Chiamaka and Devon learn that their entire school (or at least the legacy kids? or is it the entire school? Because some of them were not in on it but then the book goes and contradicts itself) is in on a systemic racist plot by Niveus Academy to ruin their lives and make them drop out of the school. This plot is carried out by literally every white person in the book, except for one guy who was used as a plot device at the beginning and seemingly wasn’t aware of it.
“This doesn’t feel real. This can’t be real. Mr. Taylor; Jack; Daniel … all these people I’ve known for years, trying to ruin my life.“
Chiamaka’s girlfriend? Plotting. Devon’s favorite teacher? Trying to get him rejected from college (by lying to him about the attendance policy?) Niveus, we learn, means “white” in Latin. And their school values are literally an anagram for “[N-WORD] DIE”
So Ace of Spades tries to handle racial issues with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. And it absolutely fails.
I think the idea of unconscious bias is an important one to talk about. It would be impossible to claim that people do not have biases due to their life experiences, society, and upbringing. And it’s also true that institutions in the US and UK have been systemically racist and the effects of this can be seen today. You cannot in good faith claim that the past has no effect on the present.
But this book is so off-the-deep-end woke it reads like satire:
“I gaze up at the wall of creepy photos, hundreds of white faces watching me. And in the odd photo, Black faces stare out, wearing blank expressions, their hair beaten into submission like mine.“
“Protesters? I finally make out what they are saying. “No justice, no peace.” Over and over again. So many brown faces, disrupting the ocean of white.”
“I never go outside [with natural hair], ever. It’s too risky. I’d rather straighten than get prodded and stared at, stroked like an animal and questioned. Like Jamie looking at me yesterday as if I were some science experiment he’s intrigued by.”
This whole time I was convincing myself that Jamie was as scared as for his future as I am for mine, but truthfully, he’s a white man and they are able to get away with murder.”
(Oh, good grief)
So many reviews I’ve read of this book talked about how they think this book is realistic and they found it really disturbing because “it could be true.”
Am I living in the same country as you guys? Do people truly think every white person is a blatantly racist villain who unquestioningly spends their free time plotting how to bully Black people and make them fail? Has the brainwashing gotten this bad?
“This is Aces. Every person I have spent the past four years with. Every person who I have looked in the eye. Sat next to in class. Passed in the hallway. Every person who, all along, wanted to humiliate me, see me work to get to the top, only to tear me down. Every person who knew they could hide behind these masks—online or here, now; a cult, that wants nothing more than to see me and Devon fail.“
There are a few different scenes in which each white character reveals their racism in some sort of weird campy horror villain way that is so far-removed from reality I was struggling to believe this wasn’t satire.
In one such scene, Devon learns that his favorite (white) music teacher has been lying to him about how skipping class isn’t allowed therefore sabotaging his college applications (because that’s a really logical devious plan). Here’s an excerpt of that scene:
“Mr. Taylor walks back over to his piano and strokes his fingers across the keys as a loud, discordant pattern of notes screeches out…. he pats the air, like he’s patting me from afar. “It’s okay not to go to college, it’s okay.” Smiling wide. “Not all people are suited for higher education. Especially your kind. Your kind needn’t have an education.”
I want to scream for help but he’s suddenly up by the door now, blocking the entrance. And anyway, who is going to help me?“
Is this what people actually think the world is like? (If so, that would explain a whole lot about Twitter)
Look, I’m sure there are plenty of rich, white, racist private school people in this country. But I truly doubt they act like the ones in this book.
Racism is in general no longer socially acceptable in the West, and most racist people– well, excepting the alt-right morons who like doing parades– most racist people aren’t going to show it to the world. They sure aren’t going to reveal it like a horror movie villain, and it’s definitely not every single white person. In fact, I’d dare to say it’s a relatively tiny percentage of the white people in this country.
And I think a lot more racism is subtle– a real elite private school that is racist wouldn’t do some sort of nonsensical elaborate scheme like this.
(Edit: As a commenter pointed out to me, there is still overt racism that occurs in these sorts of environments, and it’s not always subtle. I still think that the level of racism that was depicted in this book was a little too over the top to be taken as a common or representative depiction of the majority of modern society, but it’s obviously true that overt racism hasn’t been eradicated from society. So I want to clarify that I’m not criticizing the book for trying to depict racism, but more for the implication that this kind of extreme racism is representative of the norm in the US)
To be fair to the book, perhaps it was intended to be a critique on the ways people can be socialized into certain damaging ideologies through tradition and elitism. However, I still believe it could have been written better.
I also know that Ace of Spades is meant as an allegory of systemic racism, but I really thought that it was lacking in realism and at some points was even borderline racist itself.
Now let’s move onto talking about the plot in general.
The Plot of Ace of Spades Does Not Make Any Sense
I’m not sure whether people were just too impressed with the brilliant social commentary of Ace of Spades to notice the plot holes, logical inconsistencies and dubious understanding of the world, but I also didn’t think the plot of the mystery made much sense. At the very least, some more explanation was needed for several events.
First, Niveus Academy’s devious plan is unbelievably stupid.
Why would a racist school accept two Black students every ten years to do this cartoonishly evil and extraordinarily contrived plan? Why would white supremacists go out of their way to Gossip Girl about two random kids? What does the school gain by bullying these kids? In what way does this advance the interests of the school/white people?
It seems like a lot of effort for a goal that is completely insignificant and a plan that might not even work. What if the kids didn’t drop out? Why would they only start doing this in the kids’ senior year? And why would they try to bully them out instead of just failing them out or expelling them via kangaroo court or something else that would be way easier and more likely to work?
Even by accepting the proposition that such a school could exist unscrutinized that is run by a white supremacist organization, their plan to sabotage Black students is extremely contrived, unrealistic and ineffective.
According to the book, Aces’s goal is to prevent these Black students from graduating and being successful. So… wouldn’t it be so much easier for them to just… not accept any Black students in the first place? You’re telling me White Supremacist Academy is accepting Black students just to make them drop out again? That makes no sense at all. The same end result could be accomplished by simply being discriminatory in their acceptance policies.
Alright, I thought, so maybe they’re accepting Black students to look less like a white supremacist school full of white people. That might make sense… if there were more than two Black kids in the entire school in any given year. So you’re telling there’s always exactly two Black kids in the whole school, and everyone else is white? If that doesn’t scream “racial quota” I don’t know what does. Plus, if the public hasn’t realized this school is systematically bullying the Black kids out every single year that there are Black kids in the school I doubt they’d notice an all-white school.
Also, are there no students of any other ethnicities in this school? Sometimes I think people forget that Black and white aren’t the only two racial groups in the United States. How does Niveus feel about Asian students, or Hispanic students, or indigenous students? Do they not exist in this universe?
And why did no one notice this was happening before now? Why is every single white person written like a Machiavellian villain? Why did not one single person at the school express any sort of objection to this scheme? Did none of the girls who became friends with Chiamaka feel any sort of connection to her or guilt for what they were doing? At all? (Wait, right, every white person in this book is evil and incapable of treating Black people well)
And how would a secret like this be kept by high school kids? In real life, someone’s Snapchat story would’ve gotten screenshotted.
It feels like Àbíké-Íyímídé came up with the message of the book first and then tried to shoehorn it into a trendy dark academia YA mystery with no regard for logic.
There’s also a strange and unrealistic lack of outside intervention or attention on the major civil rights violations that Devon and Chiamaka expose. The whole Niveus situation screams discrimination lawsuit and media firestorm.
There’s no way you could convince me that should this school exist in real life, that there wouldn’t be (rightful) national outrage and that the school wouldn’t be shut down immediately.
Why did the media not jump right on the story, like they 100% absolutely would in real life? Why is the only news organization they can find paid off by Niveus? Is there no other news organization they could have contacted, like, I don’t know, any of the other national news organizations?
I am willing to bet that if a private school was exposed for doing something like this that the vast majority of the country would be rightfully furious and it would be all over the media. So the reaction in this book makes absolutely no sense.
Chiamaka and Devon go to a reporter to get their story out, and it turns out that the news station is… also racist!
“It’s not just Niveus; there are places all over the US that … that do this. Central News 1 is a part of it.”
In this universe, no institution, especially when there are white people there, can be trusted. Do you see what the book is trying to say now?
Especially during this section, could not help thinking that this book was promoting the idea that America and all of its institutions are irredeemably racist, and I believe this is a damaging philosophy. We’re told that institutions all over the country do this regularly to Black people, not just Niveus.
Yes, racism exists in America, but I do not believe that it is baked into every institution, which is what the book seems to be insinuating with this allegory.
Anyway, if this happened in real life, almost EVERY media outlet would be clamoring to get the story. Fox, CNN, MSNBC, New York Times… they are not all racist and they are not all paid off by a secret society of white supremacists.
Then, at the end of the book, there’s a spontaneous protest at the school, supposedly organized by people who saw Devon’s exposé on Twitter and got together in like a day. They protest the school. They “disrupt the ocean of white.” They… burn down the school?
So I’m wondering: why was there NO coverage of the protests at the school? How would no one have gotten footage of the protests? That would be ALL over Twitter and every media organization would be running the story. Why was the news reporting people who died in the fire but not talking at all about the protest?
I guess the characters were still just watching Central News 1, the white supremacist news? But why aren’t there any other news sources, if this takes place in America? (And, by the way, why does this book seem to think that burning down a school with students inside leading to the deaths of several people in a riot is a good solution for anything?)
Finally, one of the biggest plot holes in the book is Belle’s sister Martha and the hit and run.
At the beginning of the book, we learn that Chiamaka and her boyfriend Jamie were involved in a hit-and-run, supposedly killing a pedestrian and then driving off and leaving her in the road. Jamie had been driving and refused to call the authorities. Chiamaka has been torn up by guilt over this for a year. Then we find out that guess what, the hit-and-run was also because of the evil white people!
“Apparently, [Belle and Martha’s family] all went to Niveus and are involved in Aces. Somehow, they staged the car accident.”
It’s like that line in the Star Wars sequel that everyone makes fun of, “somehow, Palpatine returned.” Are you just not going to provide any explanation for how it’s possible to stage a car accident?
When we see Chiamaka’s flashbacks, we get a description of Jamie screaming and panicking after hitting someone on the road and begging Chiamaka not to call 911, and we’re told that Martha is lying on the road and there was blood “pooling around her head.”
So, was Jamie in on the staging? He had to be, because otherwise how would Martha know where he and Chiamaka were going to be driving? Did he take acting classes in order to simulate a realistic reaction of someone who just hit and killed a pedestrian with his car? Did they just trust in Chiamaka not calling the police on her phone? Did Martha bring fake blood to put on her head and pretend to be dead? Or did she, like, walk out in front of the car to purposefully be hit? How could they rely on Chiamaka not getting cold feet and informing the police of what happened in the days afterward? This makes absolutely no sense and we’re given zero explanation. YA thrillers are often logically dubious, and I’m usually willing to excuse that for the entertainment value and all, but this is kind of a huge plot hole. Maybe I missed something, though… if you’ve read this book and I misunderstood something about this plot point please let me know.
The Good Things About Ace of Spades
So as you can probably tell I was not the biggest fan of this book, but I also want to highlight some of the positive aspects of it.
The book’s commentary on homophobia was leagues better than the commentary on racism, for one thing. Part of Devon’s character arc is his journey towards coming out as gay to his very religious mother, and Chiamaka’s POV goes into her confusion upon thinking she may be bisexual.
Additionally, there was also some other commentary I thought was indeed thoughtful and much less heavy-handed:
“I’m sure people are surprised after the Aces blast about me and Jamie hooking up that Belle and I are hanging out. It’s the opposite of what usually happens: Boy is a massive d*ckhead to both girls, girls fight each other, boy is left unblamed as girls antagonize each other.“
(Right? Blame the guy who cheated, not the girl he cheated with!)
I had some problems with the way Devon’s behavior in some instances was presented, but I’ve already rambled for long enough in this review to get into that whole other issue.
As you really should be able to tell by now, I did not enjoy this book. To be frank, I found much of it to be blatant propaganda and race-baiting.
I know this post has edged into very controversial territory, but I want to discuss my issues with the book because I haven’t seen many negative reviews for it.
I wish that I had enjoyed this book, because it had a lot of potential and could have been a great social commentary with much-needed representation in the YA sphere. However, I did not think it was well-executed.
Have you read Ace of Spades? What did you think of it? I would love to discuss in the comments.
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