Bitter is the follow up to Emezi’s Pet, a prequel that explores the world of Bitter, Jam’s mother, and her choices as a teenager between staying safely in her special school for the arts, Eucalyptus, or fight for the city, Lucille. Outside of Eucalyptus, an activist group fights for a better city, against the injustices that billionaires and officials create and perpetuate, but Bitter feels unable to leave the sanctuary of her school, after a traumatic childhood, and wants to focus on her painting. But her friends are drawn to the fight, and when Bitter’s art takes an unexpected turn, she finds herself at the centre of the action.
Pet was such a powerful book, a young adult book that felt wise and yet deeply readable, and I also like Emezi’s other books, so I was excited for this one. It is quite different to Pet, with some of the teenage drama that wasn’t in the previous book and with a focus on types of action and how to achieve change. I really liked the characters, who all have distinct interests and lives (though Blessing didn’t get much of a role beyond being Bitter’s best friend), and I liked how it gave background to Pet whilst also being very different to it. It has more of an older feel than Pet in some ways, with the characters being slightly older and the focus being on their action and their futures, and slightly more of a YA fantasy feel, especially in the second half of the book, whereas Pet was harder to define.
The focus on art and protest in Bitter and ways in which characters found and built community were powerful, though it is interesting that in the end, violence and power do get the change Lucille needs, even if the characters fight against using violence. I didn’t find that Bitter gripped me in quite the same way as Pet, but I liked that it was different and it has more of a coming-of-age feel, as Bitter works out her place in a flawed world.