The City We Became – by N.K. Jemisin

I first read The City We Became roughly one year ago. Long story short, I loved it: even though on surface the topic didn’t look like something I would particularly enjoy, and even if some elements indeed elicited my irresistible desire to nitpick, Jemisin’s writing managed once again to carry me away, building a captivating story around an admittedly bizzare premise. Now, as I am eagerly waiting for my precocioulsy pre-ordered copy of The World We Make to be delivered so I can finally read how the story moves on, I decided to brush up the first volume as an audiobook – and to share my updated thoughts on the matter.

Title: The City We Became

Author: N.K. Jemisin

Publisher: Orbit Books

Publication Date: 24 March 2020

Genre: Fantasy Novel

Stand Alone or Series: First book of the Great Cities series

Synopsis: The novel is set in a world where major cities, at some point of their development, may become sentient beings, coming to live through the actions of their avatars. As the story starts, New York is dealing with an especially troublesome awakening, to the point that its human embodiment is left in a comatose state; to the rescue are called the avatars of its boroughs: Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens are all ready to team up and do whatever it takes, while Staten Island seems to have little in common with any of them.

Meanwhile, the city is ravaged by supernatural attacks, that appear in the shape of pale feathery tentacles, apparently controlled by a disquieting white-clad woman, who is later revealed as the avatar of the Lovecraftian city of R’lyeh , and their personal lives are directly under the threat of ultraconservative hate groups – and somehow, these cosmic and mundane monstrosities seem to be acting in concert.

Analysis: The City We Became begins in first person, in the irreverent voice of New York’s main avatar; after he slips into a coma, the narration switches to third person, adopting multiple points of views as multiple are now the characters that are called to action. In all cases, a fast-paced, vivacious present tense enhances the urgency of the matter, as well as the bustling nature of the characters and the setting (which in this case overalp). Jemisin’s prose is as usual powerful and distinctive, with a touch of artfully crafter colloquial feel.

By immersing us in each character’s thought, the author also succeeds at the arduous task of making her protagonists sympathetic – because, let’s face it, some sentient embodiments of cities and boroughs aren’t at a first glance very relatable characters – I may even have a personal pet peeve against personifications as characters, hence my original diffidence. Once the story starts, however, the writing does its magic, the avatars feel incredibly alive and real, and no matter how strange and unlikely the premise, Jemisin just happens to make it work.

The novel deals with a number of dark themes, and the worldbuilding itself comes with some disturbing implications, however the general mood of the novel is energetic and upbeat. Its tone, its pace, and even more remarkably its easily acceptable absurdity all come with echoes of pop culture and comic book logic – which indeed befits the world-saving adventures of our unlikely superheroes.

And of course, politically relevant themes are discusses. Openly and unapologetically. It wouldn’t be an N.K. Jemisin’s book otherwise. The main characters, in fact, all belong to various racial and social minorities, which deeply influences their personal existences and, at the same time, depicts a composite, multicultural, chaoitically accepting portray of the very soul of New York. The villains, on the other hand, are half edlitch abomination, half representation of human bigotry – because, let’s say it louder fo the people in the back, racism and is the real Cthulhu.

The novel, while being part of a series, has a satisfying arc and conclusion on its own, however there are a few themes that could benefit from more development, which I am trustfully hoping to see in the upcoming second book: for instance, while all protagonists are sufficiently characterized, some of them could benefit from more development, either because they have partly unsolved mysteries – such as Manhattan – or because they didn’t really find their space to shine (Queens, I am looking at you). The fast-paced urgency of their adventure also left little space for their interpersonal dynamics, and while it made sense in context, I’d like to see their possible growth as a group as well.

There are also a few themes that, in my opinion, weren’t satisfactorily resolved in this first book – and I am thinking especially to the number of moral issues that were introduced and then quickly brushed off. For instance, we find out that the birth of New York will cause the distruction of many other worlds; this should imply some serious dilemma and even question the ‘heroic’ status of our leads, but instead it takes very little for them to decide that the world they know and love is what matters the most… which makes sense, in a way, but it’s a line of reasoning that is often associated with a number of problematic ideas, so it should at least require further discussion. Then there’s the fact that the main characters are supposed to sacrifice their lives to “fuel” the awakening of New York. Except then it’s not really needed. Good for them, but why do you raise the issue if it’s just going to solve itself? Again, not sure if any of these topics were meant to be uncerimoniously dropped for good, or if they are meant to built something larger in the future. Let’s say it’s one more reason to be very curious about the next book.

Conclusions & Recommendations: As I said, I enjoyed this book for so many reasons – from its writing to its ideals to its entertainment value, not to mention the sheer mad creativity of its worldbuilding. Especially recommended to those who are looking for an unusual approach to fantasy – or for a very literal rendition of the concept of “urban fantasy”.

Content Warning: Racism – Xenophobia – Homophobia – Violence – Sexual assault

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