Review: The City We Became by N K Jemisin

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.

19 thoughts on “Review: The City We Became by N K Jemisin

  1. This is on my to-read pile (literally, it’s looking at me right now from across the room) and I didn’t know a whole lot about it; your description sounds like one of the several things I was hoping she might do. I lived in NYC for 13 years— will let you know how the portrayal of the city comes across to me. I’m especially curious about the Staten Island part, even if it doesn’t end up being a big part of the book, because its relationship to the rest of the city is… complicated. Saying it’s “the least metropolitan” is true, even though anywhere else it’d be a decent-sized city, but doesn’t come close to summing it up. It’s simultaneously a hotbed of small-minded unpleasantness and racism, with a somewhat understandable inferiority complex in regard to the larger city (the American TV version of What We Do in the Shadows makes hay of this: the lead characters are vampires who were supposed to establish themselves in Manhattan and be cool and powerful, but they got stuck in Staten Island instead and get no respect from the other vampires), and also a steadily diversifying community with its own cultural history.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It sounds like this might be more in the mode of her current Green Lantern comic book, which I’m really enjoying – definitely very different from The Fifth Season, but she’s got a great feel for the material.

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  2. I really enjoyed the original short story, but James Davis Nicoll’s review of the novel convinced me I didn’t want to read this: I really don’t see the point of (rot-13) xvyyvat gevyyvbaf bs crbcyr fb gung Arj Lbex pna vapneangr. What could possibly justify that?

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    1. //xvyyvat gevyyvbaf bs crbcyr fb gung Arj Lbex pna vapneangr. //

      I think that was potentially part of the more interesting aspect of the book but we’ll need to see the sequel to get a sense of where that is going. And it plays out in a way that suggests that the baddy maybe playing a different role than she initially appears to be.

      But…yes, a reason to be dubious about the book. It is clearly a very intentional choice by Jemisin to add that into the nature of the city’s ‘birth’.

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    2. PhilRM: The way you’ve put it is a really poorly reductive version of the idea (which is essentially how the Women in White uses it) – any city emerging is going to create tremendous change, with impacts that may be good for some and bad for others. It does not mean that the city asserting itself isn’t an overall good (and the people in question the Women in White supports are more falling in terms of their ability to dominate rather than in actual mortality, I would assume, although such an impact is left vague by the end of this novel.

      I would not let that line discourage you from reading this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. garik16: I’m not sure who’s saying this (he doesn’t say), but Nicoll quotes this: “Rirel gvzr n pvgl vf obea — ab, ernyyl, orsber gung. Gur cebprff bs bhe perngvba, jung znxrf hf nyvir, vf gur qrnguf bs uhaqerqf be gubhfnaqf bs bgure pybfryl eryngrq havirefrf, naq rirel yvivat guvat va gurz.”

        I’m at a loss as to what could possibly balance this to make the city asserting itself an overall good, but I’m open to persuasion.

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      2. I forget who states in those words but it is a point made by both San Paulo and the Woman in White and it is a shock revelation. Of course, it’s a thing that’s already happened and outside of the protagonists control. I took it as Jemisin suggesting that maybe the cities are not necessarily an overall good or that maybe this is *not* what is happening (other things San Paulo believes about the cities turns out not to be exactly true.

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      3. Phil (sorry it won’t let me respond directly to your second post), again it’s the type of comment that sounds bad in isolation but has to be considered in combination with the work as a whole as context – and as Camestros points out, we don’t even quite know at the moment what that line fully means, as it is left vague and for the future novels. Needless to say, Jemisin is not advocating for genocide or mass murder in this work, and I wouldn’t let that line in isolation be something dissuading you from trying this.

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      1. Oh cmon, now you’re just messing with this New Yorker – Brooklyn is on the tip of Long Island (Jemisin even makes a joke about it being “on Long Island” but not “part of Long Island” which I’m guessing went over your head lol) , the Bronx is the one borough on the mainland – you can’t mix them up! Now if you said Brooklyn and and Queens on the other hand…..

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      2. It’s easy to remember because Brooklyn is the one where you have to cross a pleasant little brook to get there.

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  3. I’m hoping to get to this book sometime this week. A lot of what I do in local politics involves housing activism so there is a decent chance I will be either quite happy or want to post a lengthy rant. Of course, “local” here means the San Francisco Bay Area, which has its own particular political pathologies that NYC may or may not share (like Prop. 13).

    I am half-New Yorker on my mother’s side so hopefully I will not be completely lost with the geography.

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