NK Jemisin’s 2016 short story The City Born Great (https://www.tor.com/2016/09/28/the-city-born-great/ ) is the prologue and launchpad to her most recent novel The City We Became. The original story is amended at the end so that the cataclysmic conflict at the end of the short story ends less decisively, with graffiti artist protagonist severely injured after fighting the unnamed enemy. The novel presents a new complication to the premise of the short story: New York is transforming into a living entity but rather than just a single avatar, the struggle has resulted in the creation of five additional avatars, one for each borough of New York. [For those, like me with a very fractured sense of New York geography: Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and the oft-forgotten Staten Island.]
If you are immediately thinking of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, then that’s not unreasonable but whereas Gaiman’s London is narrow, weird, convoluted and Victorian, Jemisin’s New York is loud, colourful and in your face. Whereas Neverwhere is a rabbit warren of a mystery, The City We Became owes more to superheroes, a genre that is as New York as they come. I can’t claim Jemisin has grasped that same sense of place as Gaiman did with London because I don’t know New York except through it’s own fictional depictions but it feels like it does.
The superhero comparison is not a shallow one. This is very much a story about a group of New Yorkers who each gain unique powers and who must find a way to fight a supernatural evil…and in the process lots of things get smashed including a fight between a kind-of King Kong and an eldritch subway train. The story does aim often at subtlety, the tools of the enemy include racist cops, dude-bro alt-right artists, gentrification, predatory real estate and at least one guy with nazi tattoos and ranged against these forces are an ethnically diverse group of people of different ages and sexualities. Again, the brushstrokes here are big and broad and unapologetic. The main characters get backgrounds rather than deep character arcs as they are plunged head first into a trans-dimensional battle for New York.
Jemisin saves the deeper character work for the odd one out of the bunch: Staten Island. The avatar of the least metropolitan of the boroughs, Aislyn has to face her own life and upbringing as well as the machinations of the enemy. Likewise, the personification of the forces working against the city, the Women in White allows Jemisin to show off her capacity to write about evil in a way that captures the sense of influence and self-deception. This horror dimension to the novel is repeatedly name-checked in terms of HP Lovecraft both as a pop-culture reference for characters trying to make sense of events but also later in terms of the underlying threat. However, as a work of horror this is not so much a commentary on Lovecraft as a story that plays on Stephen King riffs. In particular, it shares King’s use of psychological and personal ethical flaws as a gateway for evil forces.
The story has a definite end but with some significant plot lines and character arcs unresolved. There’s also several indications that the situation with cities transforming into semi-sentient entities is far less than an unalloyed good than was suggested in the original story. Despite the horror elements (or maybe because of it, as it makes the morality simpler) this is a much less emotionally dark work than the Broken Earth series. There are personal conflicts and something sinister in Manhattan’s past (of course, because he’s Manhattan…) but this is a story about good people trying to be good in the face of a very manifest evil.
Fun and I’m keen for a sequel.