'Ace of Spades' Is This Summer's Must-Read YA Novel

My heart is hammering just thinking about the plot of Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé's debut novel.

joy olugboyega
(Image credit: Joy Olugboyega)

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé went viral last year after scoring a seven figure book deal at 21. It was that headline that brought her image across my timeline and made me curious about her story—not just the story that would make her an overnight millionaire, but her story. I felt an inexplicable magnetism to Faridah, an instinct that was solidified once I started following her on Instagram and discovered that she, like me, is a tea fanatic (her handle is @faridahlikestea) and this simple connection bloomed into discovering many others. She is remarkably not the social media stereotype of what I would expect to find from a Gen Z author who just scored a major contract to publish their debut novel. She’s quite shy, mysterious even. She does not spill her entire life onto various apps and perform her existence for engagement—not to judge to anyone who might, I just observed it as a departure from what I would have expected from someone her age.

And so, obviously, I had to know everything.

I received a copy of her debut YA novel, Ace of Spades (published by Macmillan on June 1) and read it over a single weekend, so energized from the velocity of the plot that I quickly had to find someone else to share it with. I am emphatic about telling everyone that they must read it. The book was billed as a Get Out meets Gossip Girl, and to be frank, that sells it short. The story does, however, have elements of both those pop culture phenomenons. It features the two lone Black students who attend Niveus Academy and are subjected to a level of sabotage and cruelty that is both terrifying, and while some might assume satirical, quite rooted in reality. I guarantee anyone who reads it will not be sorry and I’m starting to sweat even now remembering the way that my heart was hammering as I was reading along desperately trying to figure out where the narrative would end up.

Faridah and I connect—like so many people do now—over Zoom (complete with technical difficulties) at night her time because she’s a night owl. She’s living back home in London, doing virtual learning for her final year at university—the place that ended up being an unexpected catalyst for her creativity in writing Ace of Spades. Her book, like many others that have been published in the last few years, places the subject of racial relations in the horror genre. It is not simply a cautionary tale of institutionalized racism but actually, a visceral depiction of the acute danger that people of color in white spaces find to be the norm. I ask her almost immediately what she thought the relationship was between anti-Blackness and so-called prestigious institutions. “I think a lot of these institutions, whether it's university or a high school, they often are prestige because they have a history that is rooted in a kind of subjugation of Black people," she says. "It's kind of interesting how they're all hiding basically what you've been doing. A lot of them have gotten their wealth and prestige from what they did in the past.”

Faridah is Muslim and the child of Nigerian immigrants. She grew up in South London, surrounded by Caribbean and African immigrants like herself, but everything shifted when she made the decision to go to a University in Scotland, where she was suddenly considered a minority. Because of her religion, she doesn’t drink alcohol, and she found herself on the fringes of the social scene with so many activities revolving around drinking. To combat some of her loneliness, she started binge-watching Gossip Girl, and shortly thereafter, Ace of Spades was born.

Still reeling from the drastic move from London to Scotland, Faridah began to observe microaggressions and outright aggressions for the first time in her life. “It was a huge culture shock that I was experiencing," she says. "One guy actually pressed himself against me in a bookshop. He was just touching my hair. I have not experienced that in my life because of the area I'm from in London, everyone looks like me,” she recalls. “I feel so sad for people that have to have their coming of age in that type of environment.” People like her characters, Chiamaka and Devon, the two narrators in Ace of Spades that represent the entirety of the Black population at Niveus—a fictional academy that is both nowhere and everywhere. People like me, as well. This kind of othering breeds an opinion of self that makes buzzy self-love concepts like body positivity or affirmations a challenge in adulthood. “Black girlhood is so relatable for me,” Faridah says on writing Chiamaka, “because there's so much, I guess, self-hatred that can happen because of the way the world keeps on telling you you're not good enough.”

What I notice immediately about Chiamaka’s character, though, is that she’s, well, a mean girl, a role that has been done to death by famous white women throughout history but almost never crosses the invisible racial barrier. Faridah has thoughts on this too: “Sometimes I get reviews and some people really love her. And then, some people are like, ‘She’s the worst human being, ever!’ But I think people are going to already be critical of Black girls by nature, because we're not seen as palatable enough for them anyway. To be quite unapologetic about yourself and not try to make the white people like you, you’re already going to push past the limit. I think, especially with Black girls, we often need to shrink to smaller versions of ourselves and Chiamaka does do that, but at the same time, she kind of stands out so that she can win the same game that white girls are winning, but she knows she has to put in more work. So I think it's kind of radical.” Radical indeed. I found Chiamaka to be a sympathetic character, in the same way that people are grown to have understanding for classic villains like Blair Waldorf or Maleficent. She’s simply misunderstood and responding to her environment based on survival. She didn’t make the brutal systems she’s operating within, but she has to make it through them one way or another.

To be quite unapologetic about yourself and not try to make the white people like you, you’re already going to push past the limit.

Understanding the complexities of characters in a non-binary way is important in a book where there is only one true enemy that might never be defeated anyway: racism. And because of that, Faridah is able to give her characters the ability to explore their identities, whatever that means for them. “I think being raised as a Black Muslim and having so many intersections in my identity, those intersections being kind of ignored or erased by other people made it so I'm quite sensitive. I know how important acknowledging intersectionality is and showing us an array of experience, if that's what you go through.”

Faridah brings that sensitivity to her art and her characters. She writes about queerness and tensions in a way that can only be done by someone with an extreme degree of empathy. But, she says, there are challenges that come with that. “I think a lot of us are actually high functioning but depressed because we have to be tough to survive," she explains. "It’s so difficult to step back and just breathe as a Black person. Generally. I think so many of us get burned out later in life, much quicker than our white counterparts. We don't even realize because we've been told that we have to constantly be working ten times as hard. Really, things catch up with you eventually. And you don't know that you've been depressed for years.”

Beyond being empathetic, Faridah is thoughtful, resilient, and vulnerable—a true Libra. And she’s on the cusp of literary stardom. YA novels often reach the widest audiences and while the so-called racial reckoning of 2020 might have somewhat prepped the public for Ace of Spades, I am almost sure that most people are not ready. But Faridah, herself, is ready for the attention, though she's hesitant to hop feet-first into the responsibility of “role model” especially after witnessing how the Internet loves to lift up and tear down their favorites. But Faridah has overcome a lot to be able to write this story—and the second book she has been contracted to do by Macmillan—all while also juggling her full time studies.

I ask Faridah if getting a million-dollar book deal ever tempted her to just quit school altogether. She laughs, “My parents, they're quite strict. So it's not an option in my family to not have a degree. Actually, my mum, the first thing she said to me, when I told her about my book deal, she was like, ‘but you're staying in school, right?’” Priceless.

Danielle Prescod

Danielle Prescod is a 15 year veteran of the beauty and fashion industry. She is currently working on her first book for Little A Publishing. Last June, she co-founded a DEI consulting firm with Chrissy Rutherford called 2BG Consulting. She is a lifelong fashion obsessive who spent her formative years in uniforms at prep school and relished in the opportunity for self-expression (and attention) that fashion provided. She primarily dedicates her time to researching how subjects like feminism and social justice intersect with pop culture. Danielle graduated from NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study.