Book Review – The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The City We Became is the latest from acclaimed sci-fi/fantasy author N.K. Jemisin. Building off of the short story The City Born Great, The City We Became is a fantasy/horror novel about a group of 5 people that have been chosen by New York City to protect itself from an evil threat seeking to destroy it. When I say chosen by New York City, I’m not talking about a democratic election, but by the very soul of the city. Jemisin utilizes the mythos of New York City as a core fabric of the book and personifies the city to make it both a character and setting. It’s something that I felt to be very unique and original.

One of my favorite things about N.K. Jemisin’s writing in this book is how effectively she creates a narrative that exists between worlds. There is a sense of dread about the monsters that lay in wait just below the surface of what humans perceive to be reality. There is frequent mention of eldritch tentacles seeping from the cracks or rising from the water, unseen by passersby but threatening the fabric of reality. The two worlds frequently blend together, creating a disorienting sense of confusion and fear for the heroes who are trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not. This drives most of the characters to feel like they are having a mental breakdown. The intertwining of old myths and human reality was reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which is one of my favorite books. It takes a skilled writer to effectively strike that balance and Jemisin excelled at it in The City We Became.

Each of the boroughs of New York City has its own protector: Manny (Manhattan), Brooklyn (Brooklyn), Eyes-lyn (Staten Island), Bronca (The Bronx), and Padmini (Queens). Each character represents a different aspect of the boroughs history and cultural makeup. It makes for a diverse set of heroes, which is very appropriate for a book steeped in the mythos of New York City. I feel like most Americans have a working understanding of the makeup of each borough, but those who don’t should be able to follow along just fine regardless. A large portion of the plot centers on the protectors of the boroughs trying to find the avatar for New York City as a whole. Beyond just New York City, two other central characters to the book are an embodiment of the Brazilian city of São Paulo and Hong Kong. Both are seeking out the protector of each of the boroughs and the primary for New York City to help them in their fight.

Not only does Jemisin’s use of each borough create at least one hero here that anyone should be able to personally identify with, but it presents Jemisin with an easy outlet to address the aforementioned cultural differences through character interaction. Jemisin tackles racism, alt-right edge lords, anti-LGBT sentiment, and more ugly pillars of society that characters with the racial, gender, and sexuality background like the 5 heroes are subjected to every day. While each of the characters has their bright spots, Bronca was the standout to me. She’s a battle-worn, Lenape lesbian that refuses to take shit from anyone and runs a community art gallery.

There is a lot of meta-commentary from Jemisin about H.P. Lovecraft here. Through the story she outright addresses Lovecraft’s extremely problematic and bigoted views on a number of occasions. The book itself seems to be rebutting the idea that Lovecraft is the king of the hill with regards to this kind of cross-dimension horror and science fiction. It’s as if Jemisin created The City We Became to say, “Women and people of color can do this shit just as good, if not better, than H.P. Lovecraft.” She backs it up by writing an incredibly inventive work of sci-fi/horror.

While much of the book takes place on the edges of reality, there are moments of full-on cinematic action. The five protectors become the embodiment of the boroughs they represent, having knock-down, drag-out fights in the ether. They stomp through the city, as tall as skyscrapers, using every bit of their borough’s geography and architecture in their mind-scape to battle their nightmare opponents. Jemisin uses these scenes sparingly before snapping back to reality, adding to the feeling of ambiguity of where the border between worlds lies. The lack of definition works for me. It helps feed the ambiance of dread that permeates every chapter.

The City We Became is an ambitious love letter to New York City. Jemisin builds a vibrant fantasy where human beings can grow to embody entire cities and protect the millions of neighbors that reside there. Not only does it provide adventure, but it tackles a broad swath of social issues that continue to permeate across the world today, including a rebuke of racism in society and in literature. One gets the sense that those who are from New York City will have an even greater connection to this novel, but even for those of us who have never been, it’s a great piece of fantasy/horror. It’s certainly going on the list of best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading so far this year.

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