Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 208
Publisher: Make Me a World
Notable Notables: POC cast, LGBTQA+ characters
Recommended Readers: Everyone!
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
From its distinctive prose to its powerful message, Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is a compelling novel that asks us to be watchful of monsters, especially those that look, act, and smile just like us.
Our story follows Jam, who was born in a world without monsters. During her parents’ youth, the world finally got tired of the political corruption and social degradation, and said enough. Now, the city of Lucille teaches its children that there are no more monsters, that angels—ordinary people who rose to the challenge of saving the world—got rid of the monsters for good, through rehabilitation or otherwise. However, Jam’s understanding of this world is shaken when Pet, a creature with horns, feathers, and claws, emerges from one of her mother’s paintings, claiming it has come to hunt a monster. Jam has to work with Pet to uncover the monster, but she is torn with indecision when she learns it is located in her best friend Redemption’s house—and that none of the adults in her world want to believe that monsters still exist right in front of them.
I utterly love Pet. It’s a quick, digestible story that is at once a teenage adventure of wonder as it is a social commentary with plenty of thoughts and ideas for you to ponder over. Even from Christopher Myers’ editor’s note, I knew Pet wasn’t going to shy away from the questions it wanted to ask you, at the hard look it wanted you to give yourself and the world around you. I’m having a real hard time even choosing a quote from Myers because the entire note is full of power, but I’ll do my best with this:
They don’t make evil like they used to.
Politicians make policies that put children in cages, or make it easier for big companies to pour poison into our air and water. But they will say that they are just doing it to support business, and that we’ll all reap the benefits of the poison eventually. There are businesses that profit from fear and anger, who package nastiness in skewed news stories and half-thought-out opinions. But they say they are just giving people what they want. There are people who scream their hatred to the skies, and burn torches and mock other folks who are different from themselves. Even they have their excuses, usually something about protecting a “way of life.” There are no villains anymore.
The note also references Hannah Arendt, a name that comes up constantly whenever you study the Holocaust, and her coined phrase “the banality of evil,” which identifies the fact that evil is very often “terrifyingly normal.” It’s the neighbors you live next to, it’s the people you grocery shop alongside, it’s the person next to you at the voting booth.
Evil can look like anyone and anything—including yourself—and it’s up to each one of us to be able to identify it when we see it, something that can be easier said than done and which is a major focus of Pet. I’d almost say this book is worth reading for the editor’s note alone, but luckily, the book takes this message and presents it in such a creative, personal way for the reader.
Emezi starts that presentation instantly with the characters themselves: African Americans in some everyday America. Jam is a transgirl who has selective mutism and often signs with ASL to converse with those around her. Emezi shows this information about Jam in an effortless way, without fuss, as if they are saying, “Here she is. This is Jam.” It’s beautiful, because Lucille is supposed to be part of a more accepting, kinder world, and it shows by Jam’s solid presence. Not that she can’t be uncertain or anxious at times, but Jam will stand firm on her morals and her stubbornness when it comes down to it. I adore her.
Pet is effortlessly feminist and pro-LGBTQA, without fanfare or pandering, because Jam is simply a girl who is fully allowed to be. She’s fully transitioned even as a kid, is unquestioned about it, and we read about her estrogen implant as we would any other notable, physical feature she possesses. This is normal for Jam, but for many, it’s a future that they still long to see. I hope this vision Emezi has for the world becomes true sooner rather than later, and in the meantime, I hope people can take heart and inspiration from Jam.
I also felt the same warmth toward her parents, Bitter and Aloe, as well as her best friend Redemption and his family. (It’s such a minor thing, but I love that Redemption has three parents, one of which identifies as non-binary. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this depicted before in such a wholesome, domestic way as it was here, really driving home how much more we need of scenes like this.) All of these characters breath life onto the page, enriching the narrative as we view them through Jam’s eyes, seeing what she’s always known while searching for the unseen monster.
Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.
Finally, there’s the titular character, Pet. I love Pet so much, coming out of this painting like some Pan’s Labyrinth horror and being a grumbling mentor/protector of this girl while actively hunting for the true monster in their community. You couldn’t have given me a better dynamic. I won’t spoil anymore about this because so much about Pet and his interactions with Jam is in the reading, and this book is well worth picking up to experience this and so much more.
That more, of course, consists of the narrative being wrapped up in African American experiences and culture, in “callbacks” to the world we currently live in and how much about it is still far less ideal than it should be, in how ordinary people have the responsibility to do good, take care of each other, and eliminate evil as humanely as possible.
That last part is something I truly enjoyed. Pet isn’t a vengeful story. It’s not about ruthlessly hunting down monstrous humans and killing them, or even that all of humanity is terrible and irredeemable. In fact, it shows the exact opposite. That people have an unlimited capacity for good and empathy, but there are those who commit evil acts, and they need to be found, held accountable, and (hopefully) can discover their goodness. The people they’ve hurt don’t have to accept them back, but we still all have a responsibility to take care of our communities and each other.
Pet is at once a story that is as heartbreaking as it is hopeful, the former because terrible things are bound to happen to us in life—if not to ourselves then often to people we know and love—the latter because the world can always get better for all of us, but we each have to put in the work to see it through.
We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.
If you have any doubts about this one—regarding its short length, genre, or subject matter—set them aside as I did. Pet is well worth your time, and Emezi is a strong, unique voice with interesting stories and perspectives that we can all benefit from hearing.