Book Review: The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin is a one of those writers I know I should be reading, but I never got around to it. I tried reading The Fifth Season some time ago, but I kind of bounced off of how bleak the first few chapters were. But! I’ve finally gotten around to filling at least one gap in my reading list with The City We Became. For whatever reason it seemed a hair more approachable than her other work?
The City We Became is a fantasy novel, but not in the ‘elves and dragons’ sense. I mean, technically, it’s an Urban Fantasy novel, but not in the ‘wizard detectives and vampires in tight leather pants’ sense, either. Rather, The City We Became is urban fantasy in the most “urban” sense of the term; it’s a fantasy about cities. Or, well, New York City in particular.
In the world of The City We Became, great cities have the potential to be ‘born,’ to have certain denizens become their champions, physical manifestations of that city. So, uh, basically Jack Hawksmoor from The Authority, if you want to get nerdy about it. The City We Became centers on New York City, and six people who suddenly find themselves turned into avatars of the largest city in the US. Jemisin really shows the cosmopolitan nature of NYC in the novel, in that all of New York’s avatars are women, queer, people of color, or sometimes a combination of all three. It’s a celebration of New York’s diversity, a decided counterpoint to the standard square-jawed white guy action hero on the cover of most SF/F novels.
If turning into a city wasn’t overwhelming enough, New York’s nascent manifestations must also deal with the machinations of The Enemy, a cosmic force that seeks to prey on and destroy cities before they can be truly born. Places like Atlantis and Pompeii are some of The Enemy’s conquests. Jemisin isn’t exactly subtle in her portrayal of The Enemy, either, as the Enemy is … white. Both in its preferred color scheme, but also in the fact that the Enemy works through methods that are far too familiar in this day and age: nosy people who freak out when they see brown people in their neighborhood, corrupt cops, white-supremacist internet trolls, and so on. It’s gentrification as cosmic horror. Which may sound a bit too on the nose, but Jemisin does an excellent job in showing the banal-yet-cosmic evil of modern society– but also how said evil can be overcome. And hell, I’m the whitest of white guys, and even my skin crawled at a lot of Jemisin’s sequences. I can’t imagine how The City We Became would hit someone from a different demographic.
Even still, while The City We Became deals with some heavy topics, it’s still a rollicking adventure, with plenty of twists and turns, including one “oh shiiiiit” reveal towards the end that’s worth the price of admission alone. Moreover, the book is a celebration of New York City, the crowded, chaotic, somehow magical metropolis that’s loomed large since before the United States declared independence. Jemisin paints a fascinating picture of New York City, the kind of picture that only someone who knows and loves a place can create. I’ve only visited NYC once, over a decade ago– and even then I was just a clueless tourist. Still, I’m sure there are plenty of little jokes and references sprinkled through the novel that only a true New Yorker would get. Though now that I think of it, I can’t remember any references to pizza.
My only quibbles with The City We Became are that some of the characters get less spotlight than others (something inevitable, given an ensemble cast), and the book’s climax– while solid, and with a surprising reveal –feels just a hair too … neat? Though with this said, The City We Became is supposed to be the first in a series, so at least later books have more plot threads to follow.
Kinda makes me wonder if Jemisin will stick to NYC, or if she’ll branch out to other cities.
Maybe even Houston?