The City We Became

I first came to N.K. Jemisin’s books in 2017, right in the middle of her spectacular run of three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel that she won for her Broken Earth trilogy. Those books warranted every plaudit they won and right away I knew that I would read almost anything she put out.

The City We Became, released in March of 2020, is Jemisin’s most recent novel, an urban fantasy about five New Yorkers who have to join forces to to confront an existential threat as the city awakens to itself. Naturally, each of the avatars represents an aspect of the city:

  • Manny, an ambiguously multi-racial and queer recent arrival in the city awakens to discover that he has no idea who he is, but he needs to find a homeless man who appears in his visions.
  • Bronca Siwanoy, an older, queer, Lenape woman and PhD who works at the Bronx art center is determined to hold her ground against the encroaching forces of gentrification.
  • Brooklyn “MC Free” Thomason, a city council member from the borough that shares her name and while she might be all business now, she was once a fire-throwing rapper.
  • Padmini Prakash, a Tamil immigrant and math prodigy who lives with her extended family in an apartment complex.
  • Aislyn Houlihan, a fully-grown white woman who lives with her parents, including her abusive, racist father (a cop), and who is deathly afraid of the other four boroughs.

On one level, The City We Became can be read as a breakneck urban fantasy. The heroes are in a race against time to find the keystone avatar of the entire city who they need to find and support against the strange forces that are attacking their city. Each of them has powers rooted in their identities as both people and as avatars of their particular borough (Aislyn’s power even rejects her New York-ness), and in this quest they are aided by other awakened city avatars, including São Paulo who draws his power from the polluted air he consumes (i.e. his cigarettes) and Hong Kong.

However, as story that crosses thriller and urban fantasy, I found The City We Became only okay. Jemisin is a talented writer, but I found the threat a little too existential and the characters a little too fumbling to really propel this book.

Where The City We Became shines is as a social commentary. This is her attempt to write New York as she knows it into existence.

Anyone who is looking to be aggrieved about racial politics is going to find a lot to dislike about The City We Became, but this is a testament to what Jemisin has created. New York and its avatars are a radically diverse collection of people who form the heartbeat of the city. It isn’t exactly the city as I know it as an outsider—I will forever associate it with bagels and pizza and find it more hispanic than depicted in the novel—but I can appreciate it as a variation on a city that I know a little bit. Jemisin’s New York is eccentric, eclectic, and frequently queer, and that is a truer depiction than one that whitewashes the city by looking only at one aspect.

Something similar happens with the existential threat that—not coincidentally—wants to whitewash all of these issues. The enemy appears in numerous guises: The Woman in White, Dr. White, and white fronds that stoke outrage, including by inspiring a group of racist provocateurs the Alt-Artistes. Dr. White works for a shadowy organization that has real estate holdings all over the world. In a word, their goal is gentrification: replacing local character with generic, boring, uniformity that weakens the local power of the awakening cities. It has killed before, and aims to do so again.

In time, The City We Became opens from this New York story to a larger universe of struggle where the awakening of one city means the destruction of another. The Enemy is revealed to be the lost city of R’lyeh. Appropriating a piece of mythos from Lovecraft, a notoriously racist author, as the primary antagonist thus layers references and commentary about the traditions of fantastical literature to the allegory about how local communities become strong through diversity.

Trying to capture the character of a place, particularly in a single book as packed with commentary as this one is, is hard. This sense of place is one of my favorite things about mystery novels, but those usually develop this sense of place across multiple novels as they feel their way through the corners and cracks. Here, in one novel, Jemisin tries to capture five distinct places that are also part of a complete whole. I would say she is on the whole successful. The City We Became is many things, including a rather unusual fantasy novel, but it is not boring. This novel is also supposed to be the first in a trilogy. I don’t know whether that means capturing the character of another city or developing stories based on the characters set down here, but I’m ready to let Jemisin surprise me whatever direction she chooses.

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<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>The City We Became</em> is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee's <em>Machineries of Empire</em> trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick's <em>Generous Thinking</em>. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste's <em>The Shadow King</em>.The City We Became is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

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