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The City We Became

Review

The City We Became

N. K. Jemisin always brings it, and in THE CITY WE BECAME --- the kickoff to her Great Cities trilogy --- she brings it hard, sparking a fresh adventure that will appeal not only to her many fans and New Yorkers, but also to most lovers of innovative genre fiction. Jemisin is well-loved and established as an expert worldbuilder of the fantastical, which she wields to interrogate real power structures. Her work comes to a more intimate place in this novel, in which the world she’s building is the living incarnation of New York City itself.

Every city, once it reaches a certain apex, is ready to be born. It chooses a human avatar to guide through the process of becoming, an embodiment of the city’s very soul, and the avatar of the city most recently born comes to assist in the birth.

Well, New York has six. The primary avatar, who encompasses the city as a whole, needs the souls of the five boroughs to come together. But if you’ve ever lived in New York, you know that reconciling Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island is way easier said than done. With the help of São Paulo, will they be able to figure out their incipient powers in time to stop the eldritch embodiment of colonialism and white supremacy that threatens New York’s very existence?

"I happen to be a born and bred New Yorker, and for me, Jemisin captures my home in all its complexities. In her evocation, she is as critical as she is loving.... In THE CITY WE BECAME, Jemisin explores how we can come together and fight back."

Manny is a multiracial grad student with a violent past he can only vaguely remember, though his body remembers what it was to wound. Brooklyn Thomason is a local politician now, but she used to be a popular rapper with some problematic lyrics (she since has apologized and donated to the Ali Forney Center). Padmini Prakash, aka Queens, is an immigrant math genius. Bronca Siwanoy is a queer, Lenape, take-no-BS nonprofit art center curator. And Staten Aislyn? She’s an Irish-American privileged racist white girl, whose father is a cop and who has very little interest in bonding with the rest of them --- which proves to be a problem.

When the eldritch horror of the Woman in White comes for them all with her agenda of insidious gentrification, Aislyn can’t help but feel like, finally, someone understands her --- someone who is not trying to get her to be part of the city that keeps forgetting her, making assumptions about her, deciding she’s too far away to try to get to know.

The other four boroughs are helped out by the avatars of Hong Kong and São Paulo, as well as human New Yorkers like a quirky cab driver named Madison, Manny’s good-natured roommate Bel Nguyen, and Bronca’s friend Veneza (who is really from Jersey City, but she works in the Bronx and considers herself pretty much a New Yorker).

The emergence of the Enemy of the Woman in White is inevitable in any city. Bigotry, violent capitalism and insidious settler supremacy --- Jemisin makes it clear that the Woman is both an ancient, tentacled, otherworldly Lovecraftian horror, and also an embodiment of all the bigoted narratives Lovecraft himself manifested within his work, and within the canon of speculative fiction. She evidences how that bigotry and cruelty spreads, infects those who are prejudiced in favor of it, turns them into puppeted monsters walking the streets. She calls for New York and all cities to recognize the beauty of their disparate souls, to unite against the true colonizing enemy.

THE CITY WE BECAME literalizes the very soul of New York, reckoning with the souls inherent in every city around the world: the messy, tangled, terrifying magic that defines the shifting breath and pulse of a cityscape. I happen to be a born and bred New Yorker, and for me, Jemisin captures my home in all its complexities. In her evocation, she is as critical as she is loving. She unapologetically explores the intricacies of how this city goes about losing its soul, and crafts a reclamation of the Black, brown, indigenous, creative, queer, trans, anti-capitalist, immigrant heart of New York. She brings together the boroughs in a Birds-of-Prey/superhero-esque origin story to work together and unite their strengths against the manifestations of their antitheses, and she does it in clever, creative prose that bites with New York wit and sings with New York compassion.

Yes, the city may be full of ancient evils wearing fresh faces. In THE CITY WE BECAME, Jemisin explores how we can come together and fight back.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on April 3, 2020

The City We Became
by N. K. Jemisin

  • Publication Date: March 24, 2020
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Orbit
  • ISBN-10: 0316509841
  • ISBN-13: 9780316509848