Review: ‘The City We Became’ by N. K. Jemisin

Five New Yorkers must come together in order to defend their city in the first book of a stunning new series by Hugo award-winning and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin.

Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

from Goodreads

DETAILS

Publisher: Orbit

ISBN: 9780356512662

Date read: 4 July 2020

Review

Over the past few years, my friends (and even, once, the poor souls in my Literature Honours class) have been subjected to extensive lectures about the mastery of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy. I tend to wax lyrical about the magnificence of her world building, her characters and their exquisite development, her enthralling plots… practically every single element of her writing. And despite that, when it comes to writing a review of her latest novel, The City We Became, I’m struggling to find words that carry more weight than “life-changing”.

The City We Became immediately sets itself apart from Jemisin’s other writing in that it chooses present-day Earth, rather than a distant future or detached fantasy world, as the setting for her “chance to have a little monstrous fun after the weight of the Broken Earth saga”. But don’t be fooled: the fantastical and magical are no less present, no less fantastic and no less majestic, than in her previous work.

Place has always carried prominence in Jemisin’s writing, but in The City We Became she takes the intensity of the setting-soul threshold to a new extreme. The novel is an ode to New York, transforming the city not only into an ethereal melting pot of magical possibility, but into a living, breathing, moving creature. Jemisin literally breathes life into the city’s five boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx manifest in five ordinary people chosen by the city to protect its territory from, and this is an actual quote, “squamous eldritch bullshit”. Each avatar is an embodiment of the spirit of their borough, with Brooklyn appearing as a rap-star turned city councilwoman, the Bronx as a Lenape director of an art centre, Queens as a Tamil mathematician, Manhattan as an amnesiac multicultural grad student, and Staten Island as the Irish-American daughter of an abusive policeman. New York itself takes the form of a queer young homeless black man, who has been rendered “out of commission” after bearing the weight of the city’s monstrous, beautiful birth.

She is the Bronx. And around her, suddenly, joined and overlapping in a way that somehow does not create paradox or cause pain, are her kin. Bright Manhattan, tall and shining, but with the deepest of shadows between his daggerlike skyscrapers. Jittery, jagged Queens,pan-amorous in her welcome to all, genius in her creative hustle and determination to put down roots. Brooklyn is old, family-solid, a deep-rooted thing of brown stone and marble halls and crumbling tenements, last stop for the true-born of New York before they are forced into the wilderness of, horror of horrors, Long Island. And together, they turn and behold their lost sister at last: Staten Island.

The City We Became

This new ground harmonises beautifully with her by now stylistic confrontation with themes of oppression, bigotry, and social justice. Other reviewers have pointed out that Jemisin is perhaps less subtle with her social commentary in this novel, but I thought it worked well. New York, to be fair, is anything but subtle. The fact that the Big Bad (the embodiment of the “squamous eldritch bullshit”) is literally a white woman spewing evil and hatred into the hearts of New Yorkers is… rather fitting. It’s not altogether too unrealistic to believe that this Woman in White would be able to find vulnerable minds through which to spread her toxic, intolerant ideology – even when this indoctrination is accompanied by creepy white tentacles sprouting up all over the city and infesting its population. Staten Island, too, becomes a site to explore the swirling mass of prejudice that forms at the intersection of gentrification and white supremacy. Internalised bias and fear of change make its avatar, Aislyn, particularly vulnerable to the Woman in White’s advances – something that speaks volumes about white, upper middle class New York’s resistance to any progress that does not prioritise them.

The anger in this book burns bright. Jemisin admitted in an interview with the New Yorker that The City We Became is her way of engaging with twisted and problematic art – particularly the legacy of racism that H. P. Lovecraft smeared through the genre into which she finds herself writing. “The man literally saw the people of New York as monsters,” she explains. “So that’s what I decided to write against.” Anger in her hands becomes a creative spark, a force that rejects the political climate of hatred spreading through American society and ignites a flame of possibility for change. It’s an empowering novel, albeit a difficult read for those of us who can’t help but see parts of ourselves in Aislyn’s resistance to the power she holds.

The only faults I could possibly level against this bold, beautiful, loud, hilarious, impossibly stunning novel are that it ended too soon, and the release date for its sequel is too far away. Jemisin has outdone herself once again. Her voice rumbles through the foundations of the city she loves so much, shaking loose the dust of centuries of enforced silence, complicit quiet. This is the story of a brewing revolution. I’m fucking here for it.

“I have hated this city. I have loved this city. I will fight for this city until it won’t have me any more. This is my homage to the city. Hope I got it right.”

N. K. Jemisin

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Recommended to: Everyone. Especially those who like their fantasy with a side of epic rap-battles, tentacle-crushing mathematical equations, killer social commentary and the best damn writing you’ll ever read.

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