In Akwaeke Emezi's Pet, angels have rid the city of Lucille of all its monsters. That's what Jam has been taught, and she has no reason to doubt it, as she lives a happy life surrounded by her loving parents and her best friend, Redemption. No reason, until a strange and frightening creature crawls out of one of her mother's paintings, intent on hunt down a monster hiding in their midst. The creature is called Pet, and it tells Jam that her duty is to help search out the evil that has taken root in Redemption's house. Jam isn't sure she's the right person for the task — but what choice does she have, when no one else will even admit that there may still be monsters lurking in the shadows?
I'm not certain when last I encountered a duo as compelling as Jam and Pet, or a scene as visually riveting as the summoning of Pet from a razor-blade studded canvas in a swirl of blood, smoke, and golden feathers. This is a brief tale that hinges on one or two difficult choices and cuts right to the heart of the matter. It reminded me of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind at the Door, with a strange creature come to help a brave girl seek out evil and overcome it. Like L'Engle, Akwaeke Emezi asks questions of good and evil and agency, all wrapped up in the terrifying and glorious spectacle of fantastical theology.
As the first release from the new Random House imprint, Make Me a World, Pet sets a bold tone. From its futuristic, candy-pink cover to its sharp prose, it's clear that something a little different is going on here. It's a small, shiny gem of a book, more novella and novel, more middle grade than young adult in feel, even as it tackles very adult questions about society's evils and the best way to combat them when everyone seems intent on looking away. This isn't a book that concerns itself with intended audience — it is for the readers who will be drawn to it and will let its fire burn bright in their hearts. As a refugee from the Vietnam War, Hang — the protagonist of Thanhhà Lại's Butterfly Yellow -- arrives in America with one goal — to find the brother she was separated from six years before. With the help of a wannabe cowboy with a pickup truck, she makes her way across Texas, searching for her brother. But once she finds him, she realizes that the reunion she longed for is still out of reach. Linh has adapted to his surroundings and forgotten his family, and now he wants nothing to do with this over-eager stranger he can barely even communicate with. Hang has already been through so much, but it will take all of her remaining strength to heal herself and rebuild her family.
It is so painfully hard for Hang and Linh to overcome the trauma they've suffered — the horrors of the war, the loss of their parents and grandmother, and the terrible journey to America. And then, once they have made their escape, they must face the hardship of learning how to live new lives and rebuild. While reading this book, it's impossible to avoid thinking of all the refugee families currently arriving at the American border, trying to flee untold horrors and stay together. Instead of finding a safe new home and a helpful cowboy, they're being ripped apart and thrown into cages.
Butterfly Yellow is so vivid and specific in its details — the sharp tang of ginger quelling nausea on a hot and jostling bus, the scent of a horse's fur when you press your face against its neck, the feeling of cave insects burrowing into skin — but truly, the power of this book is in its depiction of that universal hope of being able to find a new place to feel safe after everything has been torn apart. If it creates empathy for that struggle in the heart of even one reader, then it is doing the best work that can be done right now. Timely, brutal, and full of love for life, Butterfly Yellow is a book for the times we're living in. After making her entrance last year with The Light Between Worlds, which asked what happens to the children cast out of portal fantasies once the adventure is over, Laura Weymouth returns with A Treason of Thorns, a full-on alternate history fantasy that imagines an England that is home to Great Houses — sentient buildings that enrich or destroy their regions depending on how well they are managed by their human Caretaker.
Violet Sterling spent her childhood knowing that one day, she would become the Caretaker of Burleigh House, putting all other desires after Burleigh's wellbeing. When her father commits an act of treason and her house is sentenced to be ruined, all she can do is bide her time and wait for her chance to intercede and save Burleigh. But once that chance comes, she begins to question her undying devotion to a House that has brought so much pain to her and to her family.
Treason of Thorns offers up an unusual and delightfully creative conceit that is sure to pluck the heart strings of anyone who has ever loved a house and lost it to the vagaries of life. There is whimsy here as well as relatable sorrow, and Violet's obsession with her duty to Burleigh is sure to capture the sympathy of those among us over-burdened with a disproportionate sense of responsibility. This is a highly satisfying stand-alone fantasy that does its own quiet, largely introspective thing.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.
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