A Master of Djinn

“Some kind of cult maybe? You know how Occidentals like playing dress-up and pretending they’re ancient mystics. Order of the this … Brotherhood of the that…”

Fatma glanced to the book, remembering its sensational content. It looked like utter nonsense. Most of these “Orientalists” thought their bad translations and wrongheaded takes might help them better understand the changes sweeping the world. It seemed reading from actual Eastern scholars was beneath them.

For many of the same reasons I don’t usually go for speculative fiction set in historical settings, and despite my unabashed love of The Dandelion Dynasty books, I don’t read much steampunk. The mashup of times and technologies just doesn’t quite grab my attention, at least until I read the premise for A Master of Djinn: a fast-paced mystery set in 1912 in a Cairo where the widespread return of djinn through the actions of the mystic al-Jahiz a generation earlier set in motion a chain of events that has led to a leap in magic and technology in the world and made Egypt a burgeoning superpower.

This inciting event in the near past allows Clark (the nom de plume of history professor Dexter Gabriel) to simply spin events forward a generation and creates a compelling backdrop for this story.

A Master of Djinn opens with the secret ceremony of the Hermetic Brotherwhood of al-Jahiz (likely modeled on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). Lord Worthington, a wealthy Englishman, founded this order in Egypt to uncover deeper truths about the world, though it mostly serves for westerners to engage in role-play. Only, this time, a masked and robed figure claiming to be al-Jahiz appears at the ceremony and immolates everyone there with an otherworldly fire.

Suddenly, al-Jahiz begins to appear everywhere in Cairo stirring the anger of the downtrodden against the establishment.

Against this imposter — he must be an imposter, right? — the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities assigns one of their best, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, who also happens to be one of the few women working in the agency. Immaculately dressed in her tailored European suits, Fatma begins to investigate, grudgingly accepting the help of a junior agent, Hadia, and less grudgingly relying on her lover Siti, an enigmatic woman who belongs to a cult that worships the old Egyptian gods rather than being a good muslim.

A Master of Djinn is in many ways a procedural where these three and an assorted cast of other agents and djinn must race to discover the identity of al-Jahiz, particularly once it turns out that the imposter can control djinn and appears bent on opening a portal that will allow him to bring immensely powerful and ancient Ifrit lords back into the world. The result is that the mystery eventually gives way to a race to stop the imposter, whoever he is.

There is a lot going on in A Master of Djinn. It is post-colonialist in the best way, centering the story on people who talk about the occidentals and their strange ways, including the anti-magic legislation in the United States. It is sex-positive, with a queer love story. It is anti-racist and class-conscious, frequently making nods to or tweaking historical attitudes and prejudices, many of which are still floating around today.

Archibald could quite believe it. Dalton was obsessed with mummies—part of proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the darker hordes of their realm. Archibald was as much a racialist as the next man, but even he found such claims rubbish and tommyrot.

It is also immensely fun, with all of these themes layered into the richly-painted backdrop of this imagined Cairo. And, to cap it all off, A Master of Djinn was also funny, with exchanges like:

“But alone, we could live with our thoughts. Dwell on the purpose of our existence.” He looked up, daring to meet the baleful gaze of the hovering giant. “It is called philosophy.” The Ifrit King frowned. “Phil-o-so-phy?”

“…The more I thought, the more I began to understand myself. To know that I was created for more than just drowning my enemies in flames. I began reading many great works by mortals and other djinn. That is how I discovered, I am a pacifist.”

In fact, there was only one minor plot point that I found jarring, which was the appearance of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The premise—that he was in Cairo for a peace conference—was itself fine, just having him here surrounded by otherwise fictional characters struck me as an out-of-place caricature.

Setting that minor quibble aside, A Master of Djinn is an excellent book with a compelling and propulsive plot set in a richly imagined world. Whether I go back to Clark’s earlier novellas set in this world or just eagerly await the next novel, this is the sort of story I want more of.

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I expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, but I am enjoying the opportunities of a book to develop both the internal stories of characters and to play with time and space in ways that are hard to show on television.

The Golem and the Jinni

I am way behind on book posts given the start of the new semester. I actually read this one almost a month ago and only just not had the energy to write about it. I expect these posts to be sporadic for the foreseeable future, but I hope to be able to write a few each weekend and delay publishing for a few days so that there are more regular updates.

“But love founded only on loneliness and desire will die out before long. A shared history, tradition, and values will link two people more thoroughly than any physical act.”

It was all too easy for her to be caught up in the rhythm of the bakery, the thumps of fists on dough and the ringing of the bell over the door. Too easy to match it, and let it run away with her.

I am usually skeptical of speculative fiction where the author too blatantly uses a historical setting because it pulls me out of the story. This may be one of the downsides to being a historian. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across The Golem and the Jinni, a story set in a very particular historical milieu and discovered that it worked exceedingly well.

What Wecker does is to tell an immigrant story using folklore from two cultures that come into dialogue in interesting ways.

The Golem and the Jinni opens not with the Golem, but with her creator. On the eve of leaving Poland for the new world, Otto Rotfeld seeks the corrupt kabbalist Yehudah Schaalman to make for him a wife—a wife who is submissive, attentive, and curious. Yehudah makes for him a golem with instructions not to wake her until he has landed, but Otto falls ill on the passage and animates her in one of his final acts. The golem is thus awakened and conscious of the needs and wants of first an entire boat and then a city, New York, where she is taken in by a kindly rabbi who takes her in, names her Chava, and sets her up with a job in a bakery in the Jewish neighborhood.

At roughly the same time, a tin-smith in Little Syria awakens a jinni who has been imprisoned in a flask for over a thousand years. Trapped in human form, the jinni has little choice but to act as the smith’s apprentice even though he chafes at being forced to live within this society rather than being his own master in the desert, which leads him to seek experiences generally not open to the residents of Little Syria such as seducing the wealthy heiress Sophia Winston.

Ahmad senses a kindred spirit when he stumbles across Chava, albeit one made of earth rather than fire.

Much of the The Golem and the Jinni, comes in the form of these two double-outsiders learning to make their way in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York. They have the twin tasks of learning to live among humans even as the humans they are living amongst are learning to live in a new country. Neither requires sleep, so they are left to fill the hours that everyone else sleeps: Ahmad roams restlessly, Chava staves off boredom with minor tasks. And yet, the days are even harder for Chava given that she can sense the desires of everyone around her and her creator imbued her with instructions to obey these commands, but, eventually, curiosity will get the best of her.

However, the plot kicks into high gear with the arrival of Schaalman who gives into his own curiosity about his creation. As it happens, Ahmad is exactly what Schaalman has been searching for his entire life. It is up to Chava and Ahmad to defeat this person who has enormous power over both of them before he can bend them to his will.

Wecker recently published a second novel in this series, but I am lukewarm about reading it. I loved The Golem and the Jinni both as a conceit and in the execution of its plot. Chava and Ahmad were solid enough characters, but they worked because of how their alienness was able to reflect and harmonize with the immigrant communities of 1900s New York City.

The synopsis of the new book The Hidden Palace promises more of the same, but over a longer span and with a more sprawling cast that includes more of their own kind. At first blush, this is a reasonable premise, but I am concerned that widening the scope will lose some of the magic of the first book.

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My reading has continued apace. I have another post scheduled on A Master of Djinn and expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff-Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. While I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, I am not finding going the other way nearly as objectionable.

Two heirs to Jonathan Strange

I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell when I finally read it a few years ago. I had resisted reading it because people had compared it to Dickens, whose work I don’t care for. When I finally got over my hesitancy, I found a layered book based on a historical period, just with the magic of Faerie. That magic exists—its return is a plot point—and sits at the heart of the story, but it does so on the edges of awareness, as though it was here all along and people just didn’t notice. It is a compelling piece of world-building achieved by situating historical figures on the edges of the story so that the plot can focus on our two eponymous magicians.

Recently, I have read two books that could warrant comparison to Clarke’s masterpiece: Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown and H.G. Parry’s The Declaration of Rights of Magicians. Like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, both novels are set at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars in Europe and inject a heavy dose of magic into the historical setting.

Where one of these two books is successful, the other was one of my least favorite reads in quite a long time.

The good first.

And one could teach a woman to do magic, I suppose, but what earthly good would a flying pig or a magical female be to anyone?

If Clarke’s book was Dickens, then Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown may well be Austen, albeit with a race and gender rejoinder to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The era remains Georgian England during the Napoleonic War, and magic flows into the country from the Fairyland. This time, magic is governed by the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers headed by the Sorcerer Royal. Except this normally august post has been corrupted in the eyes of the gentry by its current occupant, Zacharias Wythe, the emancipated ward of its previous occupant. As if his blackness weren’t sufficient, Wythe has, well, “unnatural” ideas about the governance of magic. Namely, he believes that women ought to be taught magic when conventional wisdom teaches that women’s “weaker” constitution makes them unsuitable for that sort of strain.

In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.

Sorcerer to the Crown kicks into high gear when Zacharias Wythe meets a precocious woman at a school for girls that conditions them to restrain their magic. Prunella Gentlewoman is the orphan daughter of an English magician and an unknown, but probably not English, woman. Despite her upbringing in the school, Prunella is anything but willing to accept the limits placed on her in this country.

In proper romance fashion, it is clear from early on that Zacharias and Prunella are going to wind up together, but first the story tears through a plot chock full of juicy social encounters between the members of the theurgical gentry and this seemingly mismatched pair.

I tore through Sorcerer to the Crown and found it a satisfying counterpoint to the sorts of social issues that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell didn’t directly address. Magic suffuses the world, but it serves as a metaphor for ideas about the proper social order, whether in terms of work for women or for racism. We rarely, if ever, meet a historical figure, which allows Cho to talk about people like Napoleon and Tipu Sultan without being forced to imbue them with life or narrate their doings. She even had the rare achievement of bringing in blood and bloodlines in a way that actually made sense:

“Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

I don’t know if I will read the rest of the series just because this style of romance isn’t my favorite type of story, but I can also unambiguously recommend this book. I had little quibbles, but I enjoyed the story well enough and the world-building was almost entirely satisfying to me in much the same way that I appreciate Clarke’s work.

Next the bad.

It has been a while since I read a book that I disliked as much as A Declaration of Rights of Magicians.

The year is 1779 in a world with magic and France is ripe for a revolution. This is world where magic is common, but it is strictly controlled for the lower classes and certain types are banned outright, controlled by the Templar order. However, this is the Enlightenment, a time of change. Toussaint Louverture, a weather mage, is leading a rebellion on Saint-Domingue, while the mesmer Maximillian Robespierre challenges the authorities in France and the young Prime Minister of England, William Pitt, proposes that the lower classes be allowed to perform magic.

Parry clearly did a lot of research for this book and she tries to turn broad social and political movements like the ones that brought William Pitt to office, prompted the Haitian Revolution, and brought about the Declaration of Rights of Man using magic as an allegory. Except that these were all real people and the world-building felt to me like a thin veneer with a few twists (the Templars, they still exist! those earlier wars were caused by vampires!) over real history. In fact, Parry nearly admits as much in the afterward where she says:

“This book is a mythologization of the real history of Britain, France, and Haiti in the eighteenth century, which is more interesting and dramatic and downright weird than anything I could make up.”

The characters are real. The plots are (almost) real. Since all of the big events, including the eponymous document, took place in the non-mythologized history, then the magic only serves to add some sparkle and, if anything, distract from the underlying issues. Compare this to Cho’s novel where magic is works as an allegory because of its intersection with two specific characters who unlock its potential to create problems in British society.

Clarke and Cho succeeded because they set their stories at a specific time and place, but built magic into the contours and shadows of the world. Then they largely avoided dramatizing real people. Instead, they manifested characters on whom to center their story. Clarke had the competition between Strange and Norrell; Cho had Prunella and Wythe against the English establishment at the same time as they circle each other.

Parry sprinkled magic over real events and then built a novel by dramatizing three largely distinct historical threads. Perhaps they are connected, and she hints as much, but her broad fidelity to historical events prevented this from striking me as anything but a dull recounting of events that lost something in their dramatization.

I finished the book because I’m still not good at giving up on a book I’ve started, but I mostly found myself thinking that a good history of the events would be more compelling.

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My recent purchase of a Kindle Paperwhite has meant that I’ve been tearing through a succession of library e-books recently. The due date on those books combined with the start of the semester this week has meant that I am behind on writing here. At this point I am probably not going to write about Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, which I liked quite a lot, or Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I enjoyed less. I also finished Kelly Baker’s Grace Period which I may or may not write about since it is a memoir about leaving academia, a topic I have written about quite a lot here in the past and it hit a little close to home. Highly recommended, though.

I am still hoping to write about Helen Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which was a compelling immigrant story for many of the same reasons that I ascribed to Zen Cho’s book above. I also finished P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, a fun steampunk mystery set in an alternate Cairo, and Tahmima Anam’s sendup of startup culture The Startup Wife. The latter book is resonating a little too much at the moment, though, because I am currently reading Sheera Frankel and Cecelia Kang’s new exposé of facebook, An Ugly Truth.

The Bone Shard Daughter

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

Floating in the Endless Sea is an archipelago ruled by the Phoenix Empire. For hundreds of years the Sukai Dynasty has ruled these islands, protecting the people against the fearsome power of the Alanga, a mythical race of beings whose contests of power could swamp entire islands. The founder of the dynasty defeated the Alanga and imperial propaganda insists that they could return, though no one can so much as remember what they look like.

But if these myths give the dynasty legitimacy, they rule through through more usual systems of coercion and centralized power — in this case, taxation, soldiers, and a host of constructs created by the emperor and powered by shards of bone taken from the skull of every citizen in a tithing festival. These shards power the constructs, set their programming, and slowly drain the life-force from the person from whom they were taken.

The story comes together in three plots that converge on the same location.

The first is the story of Lin, the eponymous daughter of the title. She is the presumed heir of the empire locked in a struggle for succession with her foster brother Bayan, both of whom the emperor is teaching magic. However, he refuses to teach Lin Bone Shard magic, claiming that she is not a whole person because she cannot remember anything past five years ago when Bayan came into the palace, supposedly bringing with him a disease that wiped her memory. Not deterred, Lin is determined to steal what she has not been given, subverting the four major constructs that rule her father’s empire in the process if necessary.

Second is Jovis, the most wanted smuggler in the empire and a man on the run from both officials and a powerful crime syndicate. All he wants, really, is to find his wife, Emahla, who was abducted by someone in a ship with blue sails. He has been tracking this ship for years, but the chase takes a detour on Deerhead Island, first when he is charged with rescuing a child from the tithing ceremony and then when the entire island starts to sink. While fleeing certain doom, he rescues a swimming creature, Mephi, who seems to grant him immense powers. Suddenly, Jovis finds himself unable to follow such a selfish mission.

The third plot is the story of Phalue, a governor’s daughter, and her beloved-yet-impoverished partner, Ranami. Phalue has a reputation as a playgirl, but Ranami is convinced that she can convince her of the fundamental exploitation of the system and therefore join the “shardless” rebels in overthrowing her father, the governor.

All the while, on the small island of Maila, in the far north of the archipelago, Sand has spent years collecting mangoes without questioning why when, after a fall, she begins to recover her memories.

None of the characters struck me as particularly complex, but they were all working from archetypes that fit neatly within their assigned roles. I didn’t see a huge amount of character development, but the way in which the story unfolded neatly masked what otherwise might have been a problem. Lin is the best example of this because she is presented to us as something of a tabula rasa: instead of her character developing a huge amount emotionally, her character is revealed as we learn about this world with various twists and turns. The protagonists other than Jovis frequently received their development as a revelation brought about by learning about the world more than through the choices they make. This approach worked here since the reader was simultaneously learning about the world, but I found myself wondering whether it could be sustained for multiple books.

Each of the main characters also had a simple goodness that I found refreshing, even when they were set up to be naïve optimists that could be a bigger detriment in sequels if there aren’t complications thrown their way.

And yet, despite these nitpicks, I loved every moment of The Bone Shard Daughter. The reason, quite simply, is the world. This is an Asian-inspired setting, in some ways similar to Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, but remixing tropes of a lost civilization, a totalitarian government, and catastrophe that felt fresh. Stewart included in a number of nods toward systemic supply issues that created inequalities, but the shard embedded in this story that invested it with mystery, stakes, and novelty were the bone shards themselves, and the tithing ceremony that harvested them.

On one level, Stewart presents the shards as simply banal. The tithing ceremonies take place regularly, anyone who doesn’t have the tell-tale scar is automatically suspect, and the collected shards are stored in a long archive that I imagined like a library card catalogue.

On another, she presents the collection as the cruel process that it is. Since the shard is taken with a chisel applied to the skull behind the ear, some number of people die during the ceremony, but everyone else spends their life wondering whether their life or that of their family members is being slowly drained away since the constructs draw from the life force of the owner of the shard.

And on a third level altogether, the way in which the shards power the constructs is clever: each shard can hold a small number of commands written as if-then statements like a computer code. Simple constructs might have a single shard with two simple commands (follow x; report to y). More complicated constructs require larger number of shards with greater number of commands that allow them to address a wide range of tasks.

It is too soon to judge a trilogy based on its first book and there are points here that I want to see either complicated or paid off in subsequent books — for instance, I have some guesses about Sand’s story, but it needs to be more fully incorporated into the rest of the world. And yet, in The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart has done the hardest part: telling an eminently readable story in a compelling world that I want to come back to when the second book in the series drops later this year.

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I recently finished Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, a novel about a young muslim woman in India whose social media connections and digital critiques of the government land her accused of aiding a terrorist attack on a commuter train that leaves more than a hundred dead. Now I am reading Black Wave, Kim Ghattas’ account of how the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran radicalized the Middle East, leading to sectarian violence and unstable countries.

Piranesi

I realized that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if we ever discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

I resisted my first introduction to Susanna Clarke. Friends had told me that there was a fantastic historical fantasy called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but any interest I had in that premise withered and died the moment they told me that it was shades of Austen and Dickens. When I finally read JS&MN a few years ago, I was entirely blown away. Without taking anything away from those people who ate up the comparisons to Austen and Dickens, neither of whom have ever done much for me, this novel was a thousand pages of immersive storytelling that took the deceptively simple plot of a magician and his apprentice and set it at a specific historical time and wrapped both of them in the richly-textured cloak of folktale. The result was one of the best piece of fantasy literature I have ever read.

Clarke’s first book since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Piranesi could not be more different from her debut, but it is every bit as good.

Piranesi’s world consists of the House, a labyrinth of beautifully austere halls populated by statues. His favorite is an enormous faun with a slight smile and a forefinger pressed to his lips, but there are all sorts. A woman carrying a beehive. A gorilla. An elephant carrying a castle. Two kings playing chess.

Piranesi considers himself a scientist studying the world around him. The House, which stretches out for miles, exists across three floors. The lowest levels, the Drowned Halls, consist of a deep and powerful ocean with tides that can flood the upper floods of the House—particularly at the confluence of the three Tides that happens every eight years (or so Piranesi says). But if the ocean can be dangerous, it also provides Piranesi with sustenance, and he has a great reverence for all things provided by the House.

According to Piranesi, “since the world began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people.” There is Piranesi: a man in his early thirties, 1.83 meters tall, and of slender build. The second person is The Other, a man somewhat taller than Piranesi, and nearly twice his age who Piranesi meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The remaining thirteen are skeletons. He knows other people might exist, of course, which is what drives his impulse to diligently record his findings for posterity, they exist primarily as an abstraction to him.

The Other is different. He is impatient, considering the House an endlessly dreary and dead place, and rarely moves past one or two rooms because he gets easily lost.

The overlapping mysteries at the heart of Piranesi are evident practically from the opening paragraph: Who is Piranesi? Where is the House? How did he get here? The irony is that Piranesi initially doesn’t have these questions. He is a scientist, after all, and confident in who and where he is.

The House is the extent of Piranesi’s world, but there is also a larger world—our world—that cannot help but intrude on the House. Some of this is linguistic. Piranesi has words for items like “biscuit” that don’t exist in his world, for instance, so the House is clearly an adjunct to our own, but he has no memory of how he arrived there. The Other might offer insight here, but Piranesi has no reason to distrust his friend and fellow scientist. It is only when the outside world begins to impose itself on the House that Piranesi is forced to reconsider his prior assumptions.

I am being cagey about the second half of this haunting book because discussion of the house and the relationship between Piranesi and The Other requires giving away major plot elements. Suffice it to say that the answers come in the form of Susanna Clarke’s typically precise take on magic and obsession.

Clarke took the title Piranesi from Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th century classical archaeologist and artist who penned a series of sixteen prints called “Invented Prisons” (Carceri d’invenzione). These prints took the tradition of capricci, a style of art that depicts monumental buildings, and applied it to enormous labyrinths of the sort that make up the House.

The Lion Bas Reliefs form the second edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Piranesi is a spare, beautiful book about isolation, identity, and the search for knowledge, and the sort of story that has a way of staying with you. In casting about for a parallel, I could only come up with Neil Gaimon’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane or, to an extent, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, other slim, cerebral novels that benefit for how starkly they contrast with the author’s other books.

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I remain behind on writing about books I’ve read. In addition to Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy and Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King, I have finished Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent Caste, Boris Akunin’s mediocre The Coronation, and am now reading Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters.

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.

What is Making Me Happy: Brandon Sanderson’ Cosmere

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Brandon’s Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel drops next week. Rhythm of War is the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive, the cornerstone epic second-world fantasy to his larger authorial project. What makes this project, the Cosmere so impressive is that it consists of multiple different series, each set on a different second-world and with a different feel, but also contributing to a larger story that is just starting to be made clear.

Ordinarily, I vary my reading, rotating between authors and genres, but my ability to focus on books rapidly diminishes through the fall semester, often going into hibernation sometimes in mid-October. Despite my present exhaustion, I have mostly managed to avoid that fate this year by just letting myself get absorbed in the escapism of epic fantasy, starting with many of the Cosmere books that I had not yet read.

There are three things in particular that make me happy about Sanderson’s work.

First, I appreciate the ambitious scope of these novels. I have now read or am reading thirteen novels and novellas in this universe and, while I can pick up on many of the easter eggs between the stories, the larger story is just now starting to take shape. Seriously. Sanderson currently plans 35 novels for this universe. Some of these books don’t work as well for me as others do, whether because the characters don’t land or the world doesn’t quite work, but I love the sheer variety of these books.

Second, in a recent Writing Excuses podcast episode on Fantasy World-building, Patrick Rothfuss expounded on how some fantasy systems tend toward the numinous, perhaps with defined rules, but playing on a sense of wonder wherein ‘magic’ breaks the defined rules of the universe (effectively, a soft magic system). On the other end of the spectrum, he posited, are scientific (hard) systems where characters treat ‘magic’ as the world as it is and thus studying them are little different from any other scientific pursuit. Sanderson’s magic systems are decidedly scientific. Each series explores a different aspect of a common system that becomes increasingly complex as it iterates. Thus, discussion of the Cosmere often comes back to trying to figure out what the characters can do based on an analysis of the known laws of the universe rather than wondering what new abilities a character might manifest.

Third, and perhaps my favorite thing about reading so many of Sanderson’s books, is watching an author mature and develop. Sanderson’s early books are exceedingly competent, which I often chalk up to his formal education in and teaching of English. As much as I love some of the characters in his early novels, I also sometimes found the prose itself to be mechanical, workmanlike. His focus was on the worlds and the plots, which made for deeply satisfying stories that didn’t always have the most polished prose. I have noticed that starting to change in his more recent novels, where he’s started to wed prettier prose to his technical excellence. Sanderson is still stronger at world-building and the technical side of writing, which allows him to publish at a prodigious rate, but raising the level of his prose has made some of the scenes in his recent novels particularly powerful.

Watching this sort of development in the line-to-line excellence of their prose, which I have noted in authors as esteemed as Ernest Hemingway always makes me happy, if for no other reason than it gives me hope for my own writing.

I suspect I’ll keep reading mostly genre fiction for the rest of this year since I’ll likely remain tired and I have on my shelf Alex Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, but this week what is making me happy is Sanderson’s Cosmere.